Grammar and syntax in sign language

On the first day of ASL 101 classes, it's not uncommon to find a large number of American hearing students who thought they would learn ASL vocabulary with English grammar. In other words, they think ASL is "English on hands".

To their surprise, they discovered during the ASL/Deaf Awareness quiz (no marks) on the first day of class that ASL is a language of its own separate from English. Grammar of its own. That is, most Deaf Americans (including Canadians) are bilingual.

What is grammar?

Simply put, grammar is the system of a language, containing rules of a language governing word order, sentence, structure, and other elements.

Each language, both signed and spoken, has its own grammar and rules developed by a community of speakers of their language. Not only grammar is affected by a group of speakers, but also modality affects the development of language.

Grammar in American Sign Language

Because of the nature of visual-spatial modality and visual world of Deaf people, sign language has its unique system of grammar.

American Sign Language (ASL) is a language with its own grammar system, all the way from phonology (how the signed words are formed), morphology (how the words are modified), semantics (what they mean) and pragmatics (how the words are used in context), to syntax (how the words are arranged in sentence structure) and sociolinguistics (how the variations of words are used, including accent).

In linguistics, syntax is the study of sentence structure in a language. It inspects how words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences that are governed by the rules. Every language has its own syntax or rules of word order and grammar in sentence.

Basic sentence structure

Sentence structure is how all the parts of a sentence fit together, such as subject, predicate, direct object, indirect object.

A sentence generally requires at least a verb and a subject, sometimes except for a command. A verb is an action and a subject is the noun that does the action. Some sentences can add objects.

Two most basic parts of a sentence are the subject and predicate.

Other parts include: Nouns, verbs, predicates, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, determiners, pronouns, and conjunctions.

Types of sentence structure

Types of sentence structures include simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, and compound-complex sentences.





The OSV (Object-Subject-Verb) structure is commonly used in ASL. The format is this way: OBJECT/\ + SUBJECT ACTION. E.g. /\BOOK/\ IX1 KISS-FIST READING.


Topicalization is the process of establishing a topic in a sentence or a paragraph. It places the subject or the object in a sentence to the front topic. It's routinely used in ASL. Its format expresses as the TOPIC + COMMENT structure.

On the sentence level, the object of the OSV sentence structure is the topic as well as the subject of the SVO sentence structure is the topic.

On the above-sentence level, a signer expresses a topic what she/he is talking about in a more complex multi-sentence structure.


Tense is usually established at the beginning of sentence, but not always. In English, verbs are modified to reflect tense; however, in ASL, Deaf signers use tense, such as "TODAY", "TOMORROW", "LAST-WEEK", "NEXT-YEAR", etc. that indicates a tense.

In combination of tense and topic-comment, it expresses as TENSE + TOPIC + COMMENT.

Grammar rules

ASL is a truly rich language with its own grammar rules from inflections to classifiers.


Many ASL verbs are inflected in grammatical agreement with the subject and/or subject in a sentence.

For example, IX1 MEET-me, where the verb MEET is inflected to agree with the subject and the object in a sentence.

The direction, movement, speed, repetition, handshape, facial expression, eye movement, and other grammatical features can inflect a sign and/or classifier to expand it into verb, adverb, adjective or such.

These grammatical features combine in endless possibilities of subtle meanings that Deaf native-signers can instinctively detect the most subtle differences, just like a wide variety of tones of one color that trained eyes can detect.


It nearly seems as if classifiers are exclusive to sign language, though classifiers do exist in spoken languages. However, a system of classifiers is unique to the visual-spatial modality. Classifiers and inflections together create complex sentences and layers of meanings.

To-be verbs

Like some other spoken languages, ASL doesn't have "be" verbs such as "am", "are", "is", etc.


ASL was once thought not to have determiners (in terms of "a", "the"); although, later ASL linguists discovered that ASL does have its own system of determiners.

In a nutshell

That's not all. There are more elements of grammar in ASL. You can browse some more topics in the search box in this website section, in addition to "related links" at the bottom of the blog posts or articles.

Related posts

sentence structure and sentence types.

You may also be interested in topicalization: topic-comment structure.

Noun-verb pairs.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.