General Grammar

ASL is not English

American Sign Language is its own language, which means it has its own vocabulary and grammar. The grammar -- including how words and sentences are formed -- is different from English. It's best to practice this early on, so you don't default or become too attached to signing in English word order.  

As with other languages, there isn't necessarily a *single* correct way to express a thought. With that in mind, here are a few general rules and patterns to understand, look for, and practice.

basic sentences: Topic-Comment

The generally accepted and used sentence structure in ASL is referred to as "Topic-Comment" structure. This means that the central information -- the thing you're about to talk about -- goes first in the sentence. Once you've identified the topic, then you make a comment or ask a question. 

The topic may or may not be the subject of the sentence. So sometimes the word order aligns with English (in subject - verb - object syntax), and sometimes the word order is different from English (it might use object - subject - verb syntax).

For example:

"yes or no" questions

For questions that expect an answer of yes, no, or maybe, the signs and word order remains the same as regular sentences. ASL does not add words like "Do..." or "Are..." or "Can..." to questions. Instead, simply sign the sentence as if it were a statement, but use your facial expression to change it to a question:

WH-word questions

For questions that require an answer beyond yes or no -- think who, what, where, when, why, how -- the facial expression changes.  As a general rule, put the question word last in the sentence, and use the following facial expression:

Directional Signs

Many verbs in ASL are what's called directional. These are transitive verbs, meaning there's an action performed and there is an object to the action. As a result, ASL makes use of space to indicate who is involved in the action.

For example, above we used the example GIVE. The verb "give" has a subject (the giver) and an object (the recipient). As a result, we don't need to separately sign "SHE" or "ME" or the names of people involved. The sign GIVE includes this information.

However, remember that we first establish the topic, so we already know who is "where" in space. "I" am me -- located physically where I am. Other people are either present where you're conversing, in which case you point directly to them to say 


In ASL, verbs are not modified based on tense.  In other words, there's no difference between the past, present, and future versions of the word "go", for example. The English words "go", "went", "going", and "will go" would all generally translate the same way.

So how do we know what tense someone is using?  In ASL, tense is established by stating the time/tense at the beginning of the sentence or story.  Once a time is established (such as "Last night...", "Next month...", or "In 2012..."), the tense persists until a new tense is established.

The beginner course American Sign Language Made Simple introduces this concept, and an upcoming course will teach time and tense in more detail.

Want to start putting these concepts into action?  Check out our Beginner Foundations in ASL Online Course.