Basic Sign Language (ASL) Explanations

October 1, 2010
Category: About ASL

Pointers and Explanations for ASL Grammar

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The Five Elements

Just like how we see English words as the arrangement of letters, there are five basic sign language elements that make up each sign. The five elements are: handshape, movement, palm orientation, location, and facial expression. American Sign Language is a very expressive language, and understanding these elements will give you a better understanding of how signs are made and what makes them different.

Your Dominant Hand

You have a dominant and non-dominant hand. If you are right-handed, your right hand is your dominant hand. If you are left-handed, your left hand is your dominant hand. If you are ambidextrous, choose one hand to use as your dominant hand, and stick with it.

There are three types of signs when it comes to what hand you will use:

  • One-handed signs: Uses only your dominant hand
  • Two-handed symmetrical signs: Uses both your dominant and non-dominant hand where they both move the same way
  • Two-handed non-symmetrical signs: Uses both your dominant and non-dominant hand where the dominant hand moves while the non-dominant hand remains stationary

Your non-dominant hand will never move unless your dominant hand is moving the same way. This is very important for when you graduate from basic sign language into more complex signing. You don’t want to get confused!

Basic Handshapes

These are a few basic sign language handshapes that are used to form many signs. Practice forming these handshapes–you will find them very helpful for learning ASL vocabulary.

  • Open hand: Your hand is flat and your fingers are spread apart (5 hand)
  • Flat hand: Your hand is flat and your fingers and thumb are touching
  • Curved hand: Your hand is curved and your fingers and thumb are touching
  • Bent hand: Your hand is bent at the knuckles and your fingers and thumb are touching and held straight
  • Clawed hand: Your hand is curved and your fingers are separated
  • And hand: Your hand is formed so that all of your fingertips are touching
  • One hand: Your index finger is up with your palm facing forward

Your Signing Area

Your signing area is the space in front of your body from the top of your head down to your waist and from shoulder to shoulder. Most signs are made in this space during everyday conversation. Your signs should not extend beyond this area unless you are signing for a huge audience (where you should sign larger and slower).


Basic sign language direction is very important when it comes to the meaning of signs. A sign can have one meaning when it moves one way and another meaning when it moves the other way. For example, the signs for IN and OUT have different directions and different meanings.

Direction can also provide information about the subject and the object of a sentence in basic sign language. You can move the sign GIVE away from you to signify that you are giving something to someone. You can move the sign GIVE from one person to another to signify that the first person is giving something to the second person. You can do this with many signs, such as: TELL, ASK, and SEND.


In English, words are spelled differently to indicate the past, present, and future. In basic sign language, you use your body to indicate tense. Signs for the present are signed in front of your body (TODAY and NOW), signs for past are signed moving backward (BEFORE and YESTERDAY), and signs for the future are signed moving forward (TOMORROW and SOMEDAY).


In English, intensity is usually shown by adding words. In ASL, intensity is shown by varying the intensity or speed with which a sign is made or by incorporating facial expression.

For example: the sign for WALK can be made quickly or slowly to indicate how the person is walking, LIGHT BLUE is signed with a slight wrist turning motion, and SMART becomes BRILLIANT and PRETTY becomes BEAUTIFUL when signs are exaggerated.

Iconic Signs

When signs look like the word they are representing, these are said to be iconic signs. These signs can often be recognized by people who don’t know basic sign language. The sign for ELEPHANT is signed like an elephant’s trunk. The sign for SWIMMING looks like a breast stroke. There are many signs like this.

Some signs seem to be arbitrary when you first see them. When you look at the root, though, some signs becomes more iconic. The sign for HOME is made by placing your hand on your lips, then on your head. This represents where someone eats and sleeps.

Initialized Signs

An initialized sign is one that has the handshape of the first letter of the word. You will come across many of these signs in basic sign language and some are very helpful for knowing the specificity of the sign. For example, the signs for DOCTOR and NURSE look the same except that DOCTOR is signed with a “D” handshape and NURSE is signed with an “N” handshape.

The Person Ending

To show a person’s occupation or nationality, you would add the person-ending sign after the occupation or nationality. For example, you would sign TEACH + person-ending for the sign TEACHER. You could also sign AMERICA + person-ending for the sign AMERICAN. To make the person-ending, point both of your flat hands forward in front of your chest with your palms facing each other. Then, move both of your hands down at the same time.


Location is what shows you the gender of some signs. Most male signs are formed on or near the forehead while most female signs are formed on or near the cheek or chin. For example, FATHER is signed by touching the tip of your thumb to your head, while MOTHER is signed by touching the tip of your thumb to your chin.

Plurals and Possessives

To form plurals, you have a few different options:

  • The most common way is to repeat the sign several times on either side of your body. Repeating the sign for CAT would mean “multiple cats.”
  • You can also add a number or sign that indicates quantity after the sign. You can sign CAR + MANY to mean “many cars.”
  • You can also form the sign, then point with your index finger at a number of locations in your signing area. You can sign HOUSE then point around in your signing area to mean “many houses.”

Possessives are rarely used because you can usually use context. However, you can sign the letter “S” with a twist of your wrist after you sign the noun or fingerspell the word that is in possession of the thing you are talking about.


To form a negative, you can do a few things:

  • Sign the word NOT before the intended word. In relation to English, this adds the un-, im-, in-, or dis- prefix to the word (NOT + HAPPY = “unhappy”).
  • Shake your head back and forth while signing the word (BELIEVE + (shake head) = “don’t believe”).
  • For some signs, you can twist your hand downward to indicate a negative (WANT + (twist hands so palms face downward) = “don’t want”).


Articles (a, an, and the) are normally left out of basic sign language conversation. They are not necessary. However, articles are sometimes used for teaching deaf students English.


Like articles, punctuation marks are left out. They are also unnecessary (facial expression suffices). If you feel you need to add a punctuation mark, just trace the shape of the mark in the air with your pointer finger.


Please see my American Sign Language Numbers page for videos of how different numbers are signed in ASL.

Repeating Signs

Repeating a sign several times can make that sign plural. Repitition can also add another dimension to ASL. To show a continuous action, you would form the sign with a repeated, slow circular movement. To show a recurrent action, you would form the sign with several quick repeated movements. For example, you can sign LOOK several times with a slow motion to show that you gazed steadily at something, but signing LOOK with a quick repeated motion shows that you glanced at something numerous times.

I hope I was able to clear some things up about basic sign language for you! Now that you are armed with this information, are you ready to learn some ASL? Then jump on over to our free American Sign Language courses!


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