To be or….nope, not to be

One of the most interesting and unique parts of ASL is the fact that the verb “to be” is absent from the language.  This is something that you have already learned, but may not be aware that you know.

For example:

The sentence “I am going to the store” is signed as “STORE I GO”.  “I am” is missing and is only added when we translate the sentence in to English.

This is true for every conjugation of the verb.  “I went to the store” becomes “STORE I GO FINISH”, “We are going to the store” becomes “STORE WE GO”, and so forth

This affects much more than you would originally think.  The statement “This is who I am,” becomes simply a gesture to your self.

“Who are you?” Becomes “WHO YOU?” “That will be fun!” is “FUN FUTURE”.

In order to understand what is being signed, you need to have a clear grasp of the ASL timeline, which, luckily, is the next grammar lesson!

Synonyms…Why do they matter in American Sign Language (ASL)?

One misconception about American Sign Language is the belief that there is a sign for every word. However, unlike the English Language, ASL is based on communication through concepts. One example is the word “car”. There is not a specific sign for “car,” rather, the interpretation of it could include several synonyms or related words, such as “vehicle”, “transportation”, “automobile”, “auto”. Similarly, the sign for “father” could encompass “dad”, “papa”, “pa” and so forth.  Using a video dictionary or one customized for American Sign Language will help you gain a better grasp of this. Yet, do not let yourself get frustrated if you do not find an exact match for the word you wish to communicate. Instead, consider various synonyms that might suffice. This would be a great way to expand your own vocabulary while learning another language! Want to expand it even more? If we are missing something, please feel free to make a word request from our online dictionary.

A Question From a Reader…

Question:  Is there such a thing as a “dominant” and “non-dominant hand-rule?

Answer:  The answer is “Yes”.  American Sign Language does have “rules” about dominate-hand usage.  The hand you write with usually becomes your dominant hand when signing.  For example, if you are right handed, the signs that require movement will be made with this hand.  However, when signs require the use of both hands, the dominant hand does the movement while the non-dominant hand is used only as a support.  For example, the word HELP requires the use of two hands.  The non-dominant hand rests in the palm of the dominant hand, and the dominant hand then lifts (moves upward) to complete the sign.  Also, there are times when both hands will be doing the exact same movement.  A good example here is the word CONTINUE.

Obviously, there will always be some exceptions to this “dominant-hand rule”.  For example, my first sign language teacher insisted that I must always use my right hand as my dominant.  Now, for those who know me, I am a very strong left handed user.  In fact, most of my family is left handed, but trying to be a good student, I did not object to the teacher’s requirement.  From that day forward, I started signing with my right hand being the dominant one.  However, on occasion, I will sign something like “throwing a ball” with my left hand, and not with my right.  For simple signs like “ball”, it is okay to sign with either hand.  You won’t go to sign language prison if you do this.  However, the more consistent you can be with your dominant hand, either being left or right, the better your sign clarity will be.

The most important thing about sign language is that your expressed message needs to be understood by the receiver.  So, a challenge to you the next time you are conversing with a person in sign language is to notice how many signs you express using the wrong hand.  Then, come back and share your numbers with us.  We would love to receive your follow-up.

Thank you to this reader for sending us this question.  If you have questions that you would like to see answered in this blog, please send them to us at [email protected] .

The Use of Synonyms in American Sign Language (ASL)

Synonyms in American Sign Language are powerful to know when learning this vast language. For example, if you were to sign “car”, what else could that sign represent? It could represent the words: Vehicle, automobile, transportation, and auto. You can probably think of an additional word or two that also means “car”.

Many times when people are learning American Sign Language (ASL), they have a tendency to focus only on the gloss (basic) word, and not the other words associated with that particular sign. For example, think of the sign for “father”. What additional words can you think of that would match this sign? I can think of “papa”, “dad”, and “pa”. Do you know others? Remember, ASL is based on concepts, and not on the English language.

I want to challenge you to think of as many synonyms for some of the words you have already learned how to sign. Again, an example could be: Anniversary. Some synonyms would be: Holiday, jubilee, festival, fiesta, celebration, and perhaps others that you might think of. All of them use the same sign to convey the concept of the word “anniversary”.

In the video examples below, can you think of synonyms that are associated with these signs?

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Non-Manual Markers in American Sign Language (ASL)

We recently received an email from a student about the use of non-manual markers.  This person wanted to know how non-manual markers are used in American Sign Language.  Does ASLdeafined show the use of non-manual markers?

Non-manual markers include the use of facial expressions, body language, head movements, eye gazes, etc.  For example, if you are mad at someone, or about something, you may not have to use even one sign.  You can just show it by the expression on your face.  Or, if someone asked you a “yes” or “no” question, you could simply shake your head accordingly.  Non-manual markers are those additional items (partial list below) that are other than actual signs.  Now, many times you will include a head nod with a particular sign (see the example for “don’t understand” below) to clarify the message.

Here are some non-manual markers you will see in American Sign Language:

  • Head nods
  • Raised eyebrows
  • Tilted head
  • Pursed lips
  • Eye shifts
  • Eye gazes
  • Facial expressions (smile, anger, frown, puzzled look, etc)
  • Body shifts / movements

Usually, non-manual markers develop over time as you become more fluent with ASL.  When you are conversing with a deaf person, notice which non-manual markers they use.  Do they shake their head to indicate an affirmation?  What about body shifting, or eye movements?

After you start noticing non-manual markers, please share them with us by responding to this blog.  On ASLdeafined, we illustrate many non-manual markers.  Check them out when you get the time.



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Now, what non-manual markers did you notice?

American Sign Language Grammar: “To Be Verbs”

Many people have asked us about how to sign verbs in American Sign Language (ASL).  Now, with most languages, a complete sentence would consist of at least one noun and one verb.  However, in many cases, American Sign Language doesn’t have verb conjugations.  And, there are NO “To be verbs” in ASL.

In English, the “To be verbs” include:  am, is, are, was, were, be.

Now, in American Sign Language, this is how you can substitute the “to be” verbs.

  • Use “now / present” for  “am, is, are
  • Use “future / will” for “will be
  • Use “past / before” for the past tense “was / were
  • “Become” can function as a “to be” verb.  Ex. I become sick.

Now, you may understand why certain questions in ASL, do not have any “to be” verbs.

  1.  How are you?  (English)
    1. How you? (ASL)
  2. I am fine.  (English)
    1. Me fine. (ASL)
  3. I was sick. (English)
    1. Me before sick (ASL)
  4. We were hungry. (English)
    1. We hungry before (ASL)
  5. She will be 50 years old next week. (English)
    1. She become old 50 (next week) future.

“Time” in American Sign Language (ASL)

Today’s lesson references the hand’s position/MOTION, for when you are signing “time” (future, past, or present), in American Sign Language (ASL).  Before you read the rest of this blog, PLEASE make yourself comfortable with how to sign the following words:  today, tomorrow, yesterday, before, past, future, recently, now, long ago, many years ago, and other signs that you can think of that refers to “time”, as in future, past, or present.

Listed below are the approximate locations of where your time sign (hand)  needs to be when expressing a specific time, such as 2 months ago, 10 years ago, 50 years ago…

Present time:  Now. Today.   (Near your body.  Look at our ASLdeafined dictionary to see the sign)

Recent Past:  Before. Recently.  Yesterday.   (Move the hand backwards, from the “present” position, towards the back of the shoulder.  Again, look at our dictionary)

Past:  Years ago.  5 years ago.  (Exaggerated hand movement over your shoulder)

Distant Past:  Long time ago.  Once upon a time.  50 years ago.  (Heavily exaggerated motion past your head)

Near Future:  Tomorrow.  Two days from now.  This weekend.  (Slight hand motion forward  of your body)

Future:  Years from now.  5 years from now.  (Exaggerated forward motion from your body)

Distant Future:  25 years from now.  Way distant future.  (Heavily exaggerated forward from your body)

Here are some examples to follow when you are signing “time”:


1.  English:  Yesterday, I went shopping with my mom.

ASL: Yesterday  me mom go shop.

 2.   English:  He will retire in nine years.

ASL:  Man he retire nine year future (will).

 3.   English:  Tomorrow is Sunday.

ASL:  Tomorrow Sunday.

4.   English:  A long time ago, I walked to school.

ASL:  Long ago (five-hand moving backwards from body) me walk school.

American Sign Language: How Do You Sign Yes and No Questions?

American Sign Language is a dynamic language, having its own set of linguistic rules and principles.  Yesterday, we explored on how to sign a statement in ASL.  Now, I want to show you how to sign a “Yes or no” question in ASL.  Please keep in mind, you need to follow these simple rules while signing each question.

  1.  Raised eyebrows
  2. Tilt or diagonal head with shoulders a little forward
  3. Hold the last sign a little longer.

Now, it is time for some examples (Remember SVO from previous ASL structure lesson)

 English:           Do you want some cake?

ASL:               You want cake? (As you sign, remember to do 1..2..3..)


English:           Are you deaf?

ASL:               You deaf? (Again, following 1…2…3.. while signing this question)


English:           Do you like animals?

ASL:               You like animal? (Again, following 1…2…3.. while signing this question)

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On ASLdeafined, we have plenty of American Sign Language (ASL) grammar  practice exercises on Yes and No questions.  If you need practice, please go to the main website and login.


American Sign Language: Declarative Sentences in ASL

Learners of American Sign Language seem to have a difficult time understanding the structure of ASL.  For the next couple of posts, I will be discussing each type of sentence structure known to American Sign Language.  Then, I will give you a quiz to see how well you do at the end of each posting.

First of all, not everyone using American Sign Language signs “Pure” ASL.  Usually, deaf and hearing people alike will sign some version of ASL and Pidgin Signed English (PSE), which is using American Sign Language, but in English word order.  As a note, remember, ASL does not use words like, “be”, “am”, “or”, etc.  That would be more of a Signed English version of sign language.

Now, that leads us to our first sentence structure, “Declarative Sentences”.  A declarative sentence simply tells a statement, or makes a declaration.

There are a few ways to sign words in ASL.  One of the most important things to remember when learning American Sign Language is that every person will sign differently.  Here is a simple declarative sentence used in ASL:


  1.  Subject (Who or what)?
  2.  Verb (predicate)
  3.  Object

So, now you have the simple declarative statement structure in ASL (SVO).

Example of a declarative sentence in English and in ASL:

English:  Paul bought a car.

ASL:               Subject = Paul             Verb = Bought           Object = Car

Complete ASL Declarative Sentence:  Paul bought car


English:  The cup fell on the floor.

ASL:  Subject = Cup                Verb = Fell.                Object = Floor

Complete ASL Declarative Sentence:  Cup fall floor


English:  The store closes at 9:00 p.m.

ASL:  Subject = Store                        Verb = Close     Object (Time) = 9:00 night

Complete ASL Declarative Sentence:  Store close (time) 9:00 night

Now, are you ready for your quiz?

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On, we have ASL grammar exercises that help you understand the structure of American Sign Language.  If you have not seen these activities, please sign in and try them out for yourself.  (By the way, the answer for the quiz is:  “C”)