Did you ever diagram sentences?
Ohmygersh, I lurv diagramming sentences.
I could do it all day long and be happy.
Call me crazy.
ASL grammar, while being intimidating to English speaking folks is actually straightforward and easier than English grammar.
You just need to know the parts and their places. Rearrange the words into a new order and wham, an ASL sentence is born.
It’s totally therapeutic.
What kind of ASL sentences?
Learning the basic structure is vital because it does you no good to know the signs but don’t use them in the proper way.
You’re probably wondering how complex of sentences I’m going to cover today. You’ve probably seen Time+Topic+Comment and are ready for harder and more complicated sentences. I totally understand!
In order to craft your own complex sentences you need to understand the parts of a basic sentence and how to use them. Stick with me and we’ll get to the more complex sentences in future videos.
If you think you’ve got this part down, be sure to grab the worksheet before you head out to test yourself. If you have any issues, then you can come back here. I have the answers in the back of the worksheet so you can check your work! Oh yeah.
The basic ASL sentence structure in 2 ways:
Here are the main 2 ways:
TIME + TOPIC + COMMENT/ACTION
TOPIC + COMMENT/ACTION
Variants for the 2 basic structures you may see (plus many other possible combinations):
TIME + TOPIC + REFERENT + ACTION/COMMENT
TOPIC + REFERENT + COMMENT
TOPIC + COMMENT + REFERENT
TIME + TOPIC + COMMENT + REFERENT
TIME + TOPIC + REFERENT + COMMENT + ACTION + REFERENT
TIME = which in English would mean tenses.
Related: Learn ASL Grammar: Past Present and Future Tenses << specific instruction for the TIME in your sentences. For instance, how to add -ed to your signs.
TOPIC = the subject of the sentence. Who or what are you talking about?
COMMENT/ACTION = the adjective, description, verb, what’s happening to or regarding the subject.
REFERENT = This is when you refer back to the subject/topic that you’re talking about.
Let’s break down some sentences together.
#1 I don’t really like fish.
Is there time in this sentence? Nope.
What’s the sentence’s main topic? Fish. Yes, you could think it’s I, but in this case, it is not.
What are we saying about fish? I don’t really like them. This would be the comment.
Let’s put this all together:
FISH DON’T-LIKE I
The 'really' in the English sentence would be shown with your face and not by signing REAL.
#2 I’m going to the library tomorrow.
TIME = tomorrow
TOPIC = library
COMMENT/ACTION = go
REFERENT = I
Putting it all together we have this:
TOMORROW LIBRARY I GO
Remember in ASL you don’t sign 'to' unless it’s absolutely necessary and relevant and can’t be signed another way.
You also don’t sign articles (the). With the exception of when signing the proper name/title of something.
Related: ASL Foundations << learn more of what NOT to sign in relation to ASL Grammar.
What if you have more than one comment in a sentence?
#3 My dog is small, brown, and silly.
TIME = none
TOPIC = DOG
COMMENT = MY, SMALL, BROWN, SILLY
REFERENT = IT
In this sentence we have 4 comments. I’d really label MY as a topical comment because I wouldn’t sign it without the topic. It makes the sentence more clear if I keep MY + DOG together.
MY DOG IT SMALL BROWN SILLY IT
This is a referent sandwich. REFERENT + COMMENT COMMENT COMMENT + REFERENT See it? The REFERENT is the bread, the COMMENTs are the goodies inside.
You’ve got the IT because you’re referring to the dog and not yourself. You refer back to the dog to close the sentence and to make it clear that you’re still talking about your dog.
This last referent isn’t 100% necessary, but it does add clarity to your sentence. In more complex sentences use referent sandwiches like you work at Subway.
Complex ASL sentences
Let’s make the first two sentences we did a bit more complicated.
To create these you stack the topic + comment section as needed.
#1 I don’t really like fish, they’re gross.
TIME = none
TOPIC = fish
COMMENT = don’t like, gross
REFERENT = I, they
FISH DON’T-LIKE I THEY GROSS
topic + comment + referent + referent + comment
You refer back to the fish with THEY because if you don't you're saying you're gross (remember, you just referred to yourself when you signed I).
#2 I’m going to the library tomorrow to get a new book.
TIME = tomorrow
TOPIC = library, book
COMMENT = go, new, get
TOMORROW LIBRARY I GO BOOK NEW BORROW
time + topic + referent + comment + topic + comment + action
** We’ve used the term BORROW instead of ‘get’ because borrow makes more sense. It’s more clear because that’s what you actually mean when you say get.
Unless you mean steal, then you’d sign STEAL
You see that these two bigger sentences are like 2 sentences stuck together?
Creating your own ASL sentences
You may struggle with creating your own sentences quite a bit. Don’t despair.
This is because you’ve been learning English grammar all your life and it’s deeply ingrained in your brain.
You’ll be tempted to sign ASL in English word order because other people are doing it and it seems to be fine.
Don’t give into the temptation.
Signing English word order is PSE bordering on SEE.
If you are wanting to be involved in the Deaf community, have a career in sign language, understand the Deaf culture, and show your understanding and respect for their culture-- because remember it’s theirs, not yours-- you need to use ASL grammar.
You wouldn’t go into Spain and start using English grammar with their language and wouldn’t expect them to do the same, so do your best to follow the ASL sentence structure.
To practice and get a feel for the way sentences are signed I recommend writing down your sentences in English and then translating them, on paper, into ASL.
Then you can sign them.
If you do this regularly, you’ll find that when you’re signing, in real-time, that you don’t have to stop and think about how you’d sign something, it’ll come as you sign it.
Whenever I’m taking the time to practice my ASL grammar, and I still do, to this day, I find that my interpreting is so much cleaner and my signing clearer. My brain processes so much faster.
To make this easier I’ve created a set of worksheets for you to take English sentences into ASL with the answers in the back for quick checking. No need to guess if you got it right.
There are many other types of ASL sentences to learn and use.
Remember, you have to get the basic sentence structure down before you can begin to use the other types.
You know the parts and pieces and where to place them. Take some time for some mini-therapy and translate several sentences from English to ASL.
After that, you’re ready for the next step. Come back and learn the other types of sentences and you’ll see yourself transform into a signing swan that’s found inner peace.
Question: What further videos on ASL grammar do you want to see?