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American Sign Language: "how"

The sign for "how" has a couple of popular variations.

How:  Version 1: 
Form curved handshapes on both hands, palms down and/or slightly back. Place your hands together with the knuckles touching. (Looks kind of like McDonalds' Golden Arches.)  Roll the hands forward until the "arches" are upside down--ending with your hands palm-up in "cupping" handshapes. When asking how something was done or how something happened you should furrow your eyebrows.  (The question "How are you?" when used as a greeting is an exception to the rule and uses raised eyebrows.")

HOW (version)

As in: "How did you do that?" or "How did that happen?" [Use furrowed eyebrows.]


Note: For the sign "how," some people just roll one hand forward.

HOW (version)


And you might see a double one-handed roll


Sandy:  How do you sign, "Hello, how are you?"


Dr. Bill: You wave hello, (using the standard gesture), then you sign "HOW YOU?" The sign HOW uses two modified "c" hands (thumbs alongside) touches them at the knuckles and rolls them forward till the palms are up. To sign "YOU," just point at the other person.

Sandy: It's a little awkward at first, isn't it?

Dr. Bill: At first yes, practice makes it easier :)

Sample Phrase:  "How are you?"  [Raise your eyebrows a bit or at least use a friendly expression.]

Note: The phrase "How are you?" when used as a greeting is an exception to the normal lowering of the eyebrows for "Wh-type" questions (like WHO, WHAT, WHEN, HOW-MANY).

Note: If you are visiting a sick friend and you seriously want to know "how" he or she is doing then it is appropriate to use lowered / furrowed eyebrows to ask "How are you?" -- since you are seeking an extended answer that goes beyond "yes," "no," or "fine."

So remember:
"How are you?" (eyebrows up) equals a friendly greeting.
"How are you?" (eyebrows down) equals a serious inquiry.


Note:  Many English phrases include the word "how" but these phrases might not be signed using the "HOW" sign. Instead you should use signs that convey the specific meaning you are trying to express.  For example the question "How much?"

The sign for "how much" doesn't use the sign "HOW."  It is a different sign altogether.  "HOW-MUCH" uses a wh-question expression (furrow your eyebrows).  It generally means "how much" as in "How much does that cost?"

HOW-MUCH (cost)


For more on the concept of "how much" visit: "how-much"


The single movement rolling forward version of HOW tends to show up when used as part of a clause or phrase such as "How are you?" That phrase functions a lot like a "compound" wherein the two signs HOW and YOU are blended together into one concept which actually means "Are you doing fine?" (and thus functions as a yes/no question with eyebrows up). If you lower the eyebrows while signing "How are you?" it means you want more than a simple "I'm fine" answer or it means you are aware that the person has been or appears to be experiencing some sort of affliction.

When you create a compound in ASL you tend to remove reduplicated segments of signs and you tend to reduce or eliminate holds (as well as internal movement). Thus the second movement of "HOW" is eliminated when it is used as a compound concept (HOW-YOU) to mean "I recognize your existence. Are you doing okay?"

This same principle appears in other clauses and phrases. For example, when signing "I don't know how" the signs "don't-KNOW" and "HOW" are done quickly and smoothly together to create a meaning of "I don't know the process." Again here we see the reduction in movement of the sign HOW.

When HOW is used at the end of a sentence or in isolation as a "WH"-type question it tends to retain the second movement. For example, when someone does a magic trick -- you might sign "HOW" with a double movement (and lowered eyebrows) to indicate that you want an answer that is more substantial than just yes or no.

When HOW is used as a rhetorical question (with eyebrows up) it also tends to retain the double movement.

Does that mean you won't see HOW done with a single movement when used as a "WH"-type question? Of course not. You will indeed see HOW done with a single movement for WH-questions. You may notice though that the inferred meaning is more of "I expect an answer as to how this was done!" This single or double movement in this case is comparable to the single or double movement and the intensity options of the sign for NEED/must/ought-to/should/have-to.

- Dr. Bill

More notes:
How has two typical meanings:

1. In what way or manner; by what means.
"how does it work?"

2. Used to ask about the condition or quality of something.
"how was your vacation?"
(Source: Oxford Dictionary)

In ASL the "double movement" version of "HOW" (sometimes glossed as HOW-HOW or HOW+) tends to be associated a bit more with the "in what manner" meaning while the single movement version tends to be associated more with the "used to ask about the condition or quality of something" meaning.
The double movement (HOW-HOW) version just "feels" right when doing a typical "how"-based rhetorical question.

While I'm fairly sure "HOW" can use either the single movement version or the double movement version for each of its "adverbial" duties (thus I wouldn't mark a student wrong for using a single movement rhetorical HOW) -- I think we can state with some confidence that the sign HOW uses a single movement when being used to ask:
"How are you?" (HOW YOU?)

HOW tends to use a "double movement" when in isolation (as a single sign response or context heavy inquiry) or when expressed with any degree of incredulity.

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In a message dated 7/16/2003 1:23:17 AM Central Daylight Time, writes:

I can't find a good explanation for when it's appropriate to sign "how" twice. Rhetorical questions only? But I've seen it done in other situations not rhetorical.
Any help appreciated.
Scott Mather


Hi Scott,
Let's adjust your description a bit. We are not signing "HOW" twice but rather sometimes we sometimes do a double movement of one of the hands in the sign for HOW.

The use of the sign HOW varies quite a bit from user to user, but it seems to me that the "double twist of one hand" version shows up more when you are "seriously" requesting information and expecting a reply. It shows up in "one word" type of replies. The "double twist of one hand" version also tends to show up more at the end of sentences (since you have more time and don't need to "roll" into the next sign and you can use it to be very clear that you are expecting an answer).

The "both hands roll forward once" version and the "single twist of one hand" version tend to show up earlier in the sentence in statements like "How are you?"

When compounds are made in ASL, internal movement or the repetition of movement is eliminated. Thus the single movement version of HOW will be preferred in circumstances where the concept of "how" is an integrated part of another concept:
For example: How are you? (The way this is signed varies, but commonly both hands roll forward and the dominant hand smoothly transitions into the sign YOU. Another common way is for only the dominant hand to roll forward and change into the sign YOU.)

The "double movement of one hand" version of HOW is used for serious one-word questions:
Example of a one word question:
Signer B: HOW?!? (double movement of the dominant hand)

As far as rhetorical questions, I see both the "double hand roll forward once" version as well as the "single hand movement"-(with typically a single roll).
Example of a rhetorical:
Signer A: She passed her class! How? Paid the teacher.
Signer B: Oh I see.

But really, it is going to vary a lot in the "real world" with real people. Make sure to do the sign in the manner your local teacher wants it. Then go out into the Deaf Community and get a feel for the way in which your local Deaf use it.
--Dr. Bill

All material copyright 1996 by Dr. William Vicars