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This feature will give you a brief, illustrated overview of how to put together sentences in American Sign Language, often called ASL. To find out more about ASL, read our sign language essay, Talking Hands.

Keep in mind that ASL is not English. It is a three-dimensional visual language that uses manual signs, body language and facial expressions to convey meaning. One sign may be used to convey more than one word or meaning based upon its context and accompanying visual gestures. Also, English sentences cannot be simply translated word by word into sign. Like any foreign language, ASL has distinct rules for grammar and sentence syntax.

GUIDELINE 1: Facial expression matters. Compare the ASL sentences for "I'm going to the restaurant" and "Are you going to the restaurant?" Questions are accompanied by arched eyebrows and an inquisitive look.

ASL example of I am going to a restaurant

ASL exapmple of Are you going to the restaurant?

GUIDELINE 2: ASL does not use verb tenses. Past, present and future are conveyed by introducing time frame words like "yesterday," "today" or "tomorrow" into the beginning of a sentence to establish the context of what follows. For example, to say "I saw your mother yesterday," the direct translation in sign would look like this:

ASL example of Yesterday I saw your mother

GUIDELINE 3: Keep it linear. Most ASL sentence structure is based upon sequential thought. That is, if you talk about one event happening after another event, you would describe the first event and then the second. If you said in English: "I'm going to lunch after I finish this report" the direct sign translation would be:

ASL example of First I finish report, then I go to lunch

To find out more about sign language and classes in ASL, check out the Resources page or contact your local society for the deaf.