ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

American Sign Language: Negation

In American Sign Language, you make a sign or a statement negative by:

  • shaking your head
  • frowning
  • some people use the sign "not"
These negative expressions do not require a separate manual sign. They are used along with signs that have a negative connotation like "can't," or "refuse."

For example, to sign "I'm not happy," you would sign "I HAPPY" while shaking your head negatively.

A student writes:
Dear Dr. Bill,

I have a question regarding the word "can" plus shaking of the head
"no" to say cannot or can't vs. the sign for can't (point finger of
right hand coming down on point finger of other hand). Are both
excepted? Or is one better than the other? Or am I even wrong to think
you can sign the word can't/cannot by signing the sign for "can" and
shaking the head no (left to right)?


Ram Levinger
sent from my iPhone!
To me, signing CAN-(negative_head-shake) feels "very" awkward and at best might be used to mean "not able." Even for "not able" I would tend to use the actual NOT sign prior to signing CAN. Example: "HE/SHE NOT CAN WALK" = "He isn't able to WALK." I wouldn't recommend that though. Instead I'd just suggest signing "HE/SHE CAN'T WALK." Then if the other person said, "HESHE LAZY!" at that point I might sign, "NO! HE/SHE NOT CAN WALK! HIS/HER LEG BROKE!"
However the generally accepted sign for "can not" or "can't" is the CAN'T sign (dominant hand index finger striking the tip of the non-dominant hand index finger). The generally accepted sign for "not-possible" is the IMPOSSIBLE sign (dominant "Y"-hand striking the non-dominant hand palm twice).
- Dr. Bill

See: CAN
See: CAN'T

Directionality Grammar Syntax


Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   GET IT HERE!  

NEW!  Online "ASL Training Center!"  (Premium Subscription Version of ASLU)  ** CHECK IT OUT **

Also available: "" (a mirror of less traffic, fast access)  ** VISIT NOW **

Want to help support Lifeprint / ASLU?  It's easy!