ASL Grammer

Basic Concepts of American Sign Language Grammar Rules With Examples

ASL is a visual-gestural language possessing a particular set of physical characteristics and grammatical rules. ASL includes vocabulary, natural gestures, classifiers, mime, space, and facial expression. ASL is a topic-comment language, meaning that most of the time, the topic is usually established first, followed by the comment.


The adjective will often follow the noun in ASL.

Interrogative Placement

Questions usually occur last in an ASL sentence.


English: Where did you go to college?


Time Indicators

Time indicators are usually signed at the beginning of an ASL sentence.


English: I will meet you tomorrow after work.


Negative Incorporation on the Sign

Negatives in ASL may be indicated through specific signs such as “Not”, “Won’t”, “Can’t”, and “Don’t”.


English: I can’t go to the party.


The signs “Know”, “Want”, and “Like” incorporate the negative aspect in the movement, resulting in specific signs for “Don’t know”, “Don’t like”, and “Don’t want”. These are the only three signs where the negative happens ON the sign, not with separate signs. Don’t understand, Don’t have, Don’t need, etc. must use a sign or facial expression only to negate the verb.

Modal Placement (emphasis words)

Signs of emphasis usually occur last in an ASL sentence.


English: I need to go. He won’t study.


Temporal Aspect (time shown in movement)

The temporal aspect of ASL allows the movement of certain verbs to be altered in order to indicate the amount of time involved. The sign is moved in a circular motion to indicate the action is going on for a long time.

Examples: Study, Sit, Stand, Wait, Sick.

Degree/intensity of adjectives and adverbs

The movement of the sign and exaggerated facial expression shows this.


English: I work hard. She works harder. Mike works even harder. My friend hardly works.

ASL: Sign each person, followed by the verb “work”. Each time modify the movement of the sign and facial expression to show the appropriate intensity.

Reasons to change signing space

A slight pause and change in signing space can show conditionals and conjunctions, and are often used instead of the signs for words such as “but”, “or”, “if”, and “then”.


There are several ways to show plurality in ASL.

1. Add qualifier: 3 dogs, many cats, few men

2. Repeat the sign: books, classes, classifiers, (only a few signs will work for this)

3. Indexing: boy – those boys

4. Context – if you say nothing, assumed plural: She likes men. Boys like ice cream. I hate cats. I have friends.

Pronouns are established in ASL by giving someone or something an assigned space (spatialization) and referring back to him, her, it, she, he, they, them, etc. (indexing)

Facial Expression as a Grammatical Marker

Obviously facial expression is part of ASL for inflection and intensity, but it is also important for grammar, similar to punctuation.

Are you married?

You are married.

You have a lot of cousins.

How many cousins do you have?

Do you have many cousins?

Can I borrow $2.00?

Loan me $2.00!

Use of Classifiers

Very common and important in ASL and very descriptive compared to English. Classifiers are handshapes that are used to represent certain groups of things. Movement and facial expression play a major role in the use of classifiers.

Conceptual Accuracy

Always choose the sign that matches the meaning: I have taken the class. I have to take the class. Take your time. It takes time. Make up your mind. Make up a story. Make your bed. Make it on time. I got sick. I got an award. I get it.

Use of Body Shift (role shift)

You can bring several characters into a story or conversation with indexing then role shifting. I asked, “Are you going?” She said, “No, I can’t” “Why not”, I asked. “I have to work,” she replied. Mom said I couldn’t go so I asked Dad and he said it was fine and then my sister said it wasn’t fair and mom agreed. Dad just rolled his eyes and left.

Multi-directional Verbs

Verbs that indicate the giver and receiver of the action by the movement of the verb itself.

Examples: Give, Show, tell (inform), Advise, Help


Facial expression, space and pausing are most commonly used to indicate a conditional in ASL.


If it rains, we will move the games inside.

I can go to the movie if I get off work early.


Space and pausing is most often used rather than “invented” or English-based signs.

Rhetorical Questions

Used for emphasis in ASL. Hearing people often overuse them, so be careful. Use of fingerspelling for emphasis

Sit down N-O-W !

Stop whining and just do it !

Her name is A-m-y. (no emphasis, just information)

He is VERY angry.

He WILL graduate!

Geometric Figures

Always use the index finger to outline geometric figures and explain directions. Triangles, squares, rectangles, circles.

Examples: Around the corner from the library. Down the street, turn left. Across from the library.

Tense indicators

Words such as “is”, “was”, “will be”, “are” are implied with tense indicators in ASL.

Examples: She is a doctor. She will be a doctor. She was a doctor.

Initialized Signs

Invented with the SEE systems in the 70’s. Over time, some have been incorporated into ASL if they meet the economy of motion criteria. They have a base ASL sign that was altered to include a letter representing the English word.

Accepted: family, class, group, team, lunch, doctor, parents (sometimes), others.... Not accepted: pretty, beautiful, have, has, was, were, day, night, be, is, future, food, need, see, look, gaze, do, did, does, done, and about a million others

Lexicalized Fingerspelling

Fingerspelled words that over time evolved to become signs. Are altered from the original spelling of every word. NOT incorrect spelling; they are actually the sign.

Examples: No, yes, dog, doing, early, back, when, why, how, what, fix, but, then....etc.

Three Signs or Less Rule

If a sentence has three signs or less, the word order is usually flexible.

Example: I like ice cream. Who is that lady? Why did you miss class?

Economy of Motion

Signs are arranged naturally, in an order that feels right and looks right. ASL is a visual kinesthetic language. Just as the words in English “sound” right and mistakes “sound” funny. ASL looks right and mistakes “look” funny. - Have FUN Learning Sign Language.