ASL Lessons | Bookstore | Library | ASL University Main ►

"WH"-question placement:

It is common for ASL teachers to tell their students to (always) put "WH" concepts (such as who, what, when, where, why, etc.) at the end of a signed question.  While in general it is good to put "WH" question signs at the end of a sentence -- it is not an "absolute" rule applied to all situations. 

I mention this since I know many of you are taking sign from teachers who insist that the "WH"-question must come last. Actually that is not true IRL (in real life).

1. In very short sentences it isn't overly important to put the "WH"-question last. For example: "WHO IX?"-("Who is that person?").

2. Some sentences involve a "WH"-question clause wherein the WH-question is in the clause but not necessarily at the end of the sentence. For example:  In a widespread ASL curriculum, we see a video demonstration of the following question:
THREE FLAGS WHICH OLD-EST? 1st-of-3 ENGLAND (depict the stripes), 2nd-of-3 FRANCE (depict the stripes), 3rd-of-3 AMERICA (depict the stars and stripes) of-these-3 WHICH OLD-EST? (Source: Signing Naturally, Unit 19). 

The point here is the Deaf signer in this widespread curriculum is signing: "…WHICH OLDEST?"  (Not "OLDEST WHICH?") 

3. Often the "WH"-concept is subsumed into another sign. For example: "IX what-NAME?" ("What is that person's name?")

Let me give you a sample of a trade-off. Consider the sentence: "Who takes out the garbage in your family?"
If you want to put the "WHO" sign at the end you end up trying something like this:


This is a little better:
YOUR HOUSE, PERSON THROW-out GARBAGE, WHO? (Still awkward but more clear. We have to expend energy adding the sign "PERSON.")

Or you can use this type of sentence:
YOUR HOUSE, GARBAGE, WHO THROW-out? (This fairly decent version but it takes a micro bit of extra effort to topicalize "GARBAGE." )

Then if we do this, we are making the ASL 1 and ASL 2 teachers happy again but wasting time and energy:

Or you just accept the fact that your ASL 1 and/or ASL 2 teacher were parroting over-generalized advice about (always) putting the "WH"-question at the end of the sentence and realize that it is okay to sign:
YOUR HOUSE, WHO THROW-out GARBAGE? (The most efficient.)

Oh sure, you should sign however your local teacher wants you to sign (at least until you get the grade you want in the class). Then go out in the world and see how we sign in real life.


Compare these two statements:
1. The sign order of ASL.
2. The various sign orders of ASL.

Sentence one implies there is only one "sign order."

In real life there are quite a few acceptable sign orders depending on context and intent.

All of the following show up on the hands of skilled signers:
YOU NAME-(what)?
NAME-(what) YOU?
NAME-(what)? (While looking at the person.)
YOUR NAME-(what)?
The word "what" in parenthesis above refers to creating the meaning of "what" by furrowing your eyebrows while doing the indicated sign.
The point here is that beginners struggle with knowing "the" right sign order because there is not just "one" specific right sign order.
You can even ask someone what their name is without signing anything at all and by simply looking at them expectantly when they reach the registration table after they have stood in line for the last 10 minutes watching other people give their name upon reaching the front of the line. The point here is that the more context you have the less signing needs to be done to communicate successfully. If you use too many signs in high context situations ("MY NAME JOHN SMITH versus "JOHN") your sign order might be perfect but you show a lack of ability to use the language in socially appropriate ways.
Your time as a student of ASL will be much more effectively (and enjoyably) invested in simply diving in and focusing on communicating as effectively as possible based on the circumstances in which you find yourself. After a few hundred real-life conversations you'll find that signing order will simply not be a concern.


Notes:  ASL (similar to typical spoken language) has a lot of syntactic variation -- which is a fancy way of saying that there are a lot of right ways to sign the same thing in ASL.


Also see: WH-rightward movement unnecessary in very short questions

Also see: "WH-question" facial expression

*  Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy
DONATE  (Thanks!)

Another way to help is to buy something from Dr. Bill's "Bookstore."

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)  

*  Also check out Dr. Bill's channel:

You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University ™ 
ASL resources by  ©  Dr. William Vicars