How to Structure Sentences in American Sign Language
In American Sign Language (ASL), you can choose to assemble the words in your sentence in different orders, depending on the content of your dialogue. Some sentences should be signed in a natural English order because rearranging them would cause confusion. However, most of the time, you can get your point across in a variety of ways without worrying about the word order.
Putting nouns and verbs together in Sign language
Unlike English grammar rules, which dictate that the subject must go before the verb, Sign allows you to put the subject before or after the verb when dealing with simple sentences; it doesn’t matter which word comes first.
Start with a basic subject-verb sentence. You can sign it either in subject-verb or verb-subject order. Here are some examples:
English: He sells.
Sign: HE SELLS
English: I eat.
Sign: ME EAT
Sentences with direct objects in Sign language
Although these tiny sentences get the point across, the world would be pretty boring if that’s how people communicated all the time. So add a direct object to each of these sentences to make them a little more interesting.
In case you haven’t had a grammar class in a few years, a direct object is a word that goes after the verb and answers the question What? or Whom? However, in ASL, the direct object can go either before the subject or after the verb.
English: He sells food.
Sign: HE SELLS FOOD
Sign: FOOD HE SELLS
English: She drives a car.
Sign: SHE DRIVES CAR
Sign: CAR SHE DRIVES
If you have a sentence that may be misunderstood if you change the word order, leave it in the natural English order. For example, if you want to say Joe loves Sue, you need to sign JOE LOVES SUE. Changing it around to SUE LOVES JOE doesn’t convey the same meaning. (But hopefully Sue does love Joe in return.)
Signing indirect objects
Another quick grammar reminder: Indirect objects are words that come between the verb and direct object; they indicate who or what receives the direct object.
In ASL, you place the indirect object right after the subject and then show the action:
English: The girl throws the dog a bone.
Sign: GIRL — DOG BONE — THROW
English: I give the teacher apples.
Sign: ME TEACHER — APPLES GIVE