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Syntax of Sign Language

Syntax is most commonly defined as how sentences are structured in a language. Sentences in ASL generally follow a certain structure, known as “time” “topic” “comment” structure. Not only is this structure different in spoken English, but there is a variation in the way it can be used.

Example : I walked my dog last week

There are many ways to sign this sentence

  • Subject + Predicate
    • “I walk my dog”
  • Time + Subject + Predicate or Time + Topic + Comment
    • “Week-past [first person pronoun] walk my dog”
  • Subject + Action + Object
    • “My dog, I walk week-past”

Although there are two ways to say the sentence, there are also different ways to sign the word walk i.e. using different hand shapes or in different contexts (“stroll”, “hike”, “walk-to” etc.).

Some people consider it more important that the correct sign is chosen, rather than the combination of signs be used in the correct order.

Quite often ASL signers will use the object of their sentence as the topic.


“MY CAR, I WASH WEEK-PAST” [Note: The eyebrows are raised and the head is tilted slightly forward during the “MY CAR” portion of that sentence.]

Using the object of your sentence as the topic of the sentence is called “topicalization.” In this example, “my car” becomes the subject instead of “me.” The fact that “I washed it last week” becomes the comment.