Learn American Sign Language Grammar: Past, Present, & Future Tense

You want to learn ASL grammar tenses and how to add tenses to your individual signs and sentences while in conversation? This lesson is just for you. Learn the 2 simple rules for adding tenses to your ASL sentences with examples for each tense. Don't forget to grab your free cheatsheet. It's a fantastic tool to have near you as you work on creating your own ASL sentences.
“If you have one foot in the past, and one foot in the future, you’re peeing on the present.”

 

This was one of those things we said to the kids at wilderness therapy. I’m sure they wanted to cut my eyes out every time.

Staying present is a hard thing to do, but so worthwhile.

 

Similarly, if you’re mixing up your tenses, or not even adding tenses to your signed conversations you are, in a way, peeing on all your efforts.

 

Too vulgar for you?

 

Well, how about this:


If you mix up your tenses, or don’t use them, you are neglecting a vital part of ASL grammar and thus, will have a much weaker message.

 

 

Let’s make sure you understand HOW to use tenses correctly and easily.

 

Many people email asking, how do I say ran? How do I say stopped? How do I say went?


It’s much simpler than you think it is.

 



 

There are 3 tenses: past, present, and future. We’ll start with the basic rules for all tenses and then break down the tenses with examples.

 

2 ways to add tense to your ASL sentences.

 

1: Put the tense in the beginning of the sentence.

If you’ve seen the sentence structure: Time + Topic + Comment

Tense is the TIME portion.

We’ll talk about what time words you can use when we talk about the specific tenses.

 

2: Put the tense immediately in front of the word it affects.

TENSE-SIGN  

The tense sign is signed faster and smaller than usual. The sign attached to it is signed immediately after.

 

Past tense in ASL

 

At the beginning of the sentence you can use signs like:

YESTERDAY

PAST/BEFORE

LAST WEEK

LAST YEAR

LAST MONTH

2 WEEKS AGO

RECENT

 

2 examples:

YESTERDAY STORE I GO

RECENT MYSELF TEXAS MOVE INDIANA

 

In front of the word you sign FINISH

 

2 examples:

FINISH-RUN

FINISH-JUMP

 

You don’t always use this FINISH method. It’s best to do the tense at the beginning of the sentence. Here are other ways you can sign ran and jumped:

 

YESTERDAY I RUN  

PAST I JUMP

You have the time at the beginning of the sentence and it still means the past tense of the word later on.

 

The TENSE+SIGN is a great method to use if you forget, it’s a longer message and you want to make sure they don’t miss the tense, or if you want to emphasize the tense for other reasons.

 

 

Present tense in ASL

 

These are the signs you use at the beginning of the sentence.

TODAY

IMMEDIATE

NOW

NOW-YEAR

NOW-WEEK

NOW-MONTH

NOW-WEEKEND

 

For in front of the word you sign NOW.

 

2 examples:

TODAY DANCE PRACTICE SHE HAVE

 

HURRY WE GO NOW-NEED

 

How do I say right now in ASL?

 

If you want to show the immediacy you would not sign RIGHT now (because that’s not the correct meaning), instead you show it with your mouth, face, body, and the way you sign it << your non-manual markers

 

 

Want to know more about non-manual markers? Join the free ASL Foundations course:

 

Future tense in ASL

 

NEXT-YEAR

NEXT-MONTH

NEXT-WEEK

2 WEEKS FROM NOW

TOMORROW

FUTURE/SOMEDAY

WILL

 

2 examples:

 

 

NEXT YEAR HIGH SCHOOL I GRADUATE I

 

TOMORROW ZOO WILL GO I

 

Farewell ASL grammar tip

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to let go of the need to sign the exact English words you’re trying to say. Instead, sign what you MEAN.

You may have to stop and think, what does this word, or phrase, really mean? What is it really saying? 

Sign THAT.

 

This will go a long way to help you start thinking IN ASL rather than trying to sign English.

 

Be sure to put the tense at the beginning of your sentences and don’t mix them up. Don’t sign past and future tense in the same sentence. Don't skip out on using tenses all together, or else…

 

You’ll be peeing on your signing. 

And that's gross.

 

 

Question of the day: 

What are other lessons you want to learn with ASL grammar?

 


mwah, Rochelle