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SIGN: The American Sign Language (ASL) sign for "sign / signing / sign language"

 If you mean "sign" sign as in a "display" or a "road sign" see "SIGN-[square / display]

There is more than one common sign for "SIGN" (as in "signing or sign language.")

SIGN:  "a sign," "sign this," "signed," "signing," "sign language," "signs":

This version of "sign" is done using a quick open and close movement.


SIGNING-[advanced-signing, ASL-type-signing, skilled signing]


Sentence: Who in your family signs?


A common sign for "sign / signing / sign language" that has been around for a long is done using your index fingers.
Form both hands into "1" hand shapes.  Then draw a couple of large circles in the air with the tip of each index finger.  You can either circle the hands backwards or forwards (but pick a direction and stick with it).  The hands both move at the same time but one hand is half a circle ahead of the other hand). 

I personally tend to do the movement as if pedaling a (stationary) bicycle backwards.  Both hands move at the same time. When the right hand is up, the left hand is down.  When the right hand is forward, the left hand is back.  However some signers prefer to "pedal" using a forward rotation.  At the time of this writing, one version is not more right than the other (but some people will try to tell you their version is right).

SIGN-[a sign, signing-(basic), sign language-(general)]


Click this link to see a "gif" animation of this sign: "Sign Language" (.gif file)

Remember, many people do the sign with a forward, down, back, up movement -- as if pedaling a bicycle forwards.)

The sign for "sign" as in "a roadway sign" or a billboard is different from "sign" as in "American Sign Language."
If you want to talk about a road sign, billboard, blackboard, or square, see: SQUARE

Optional Reading (Not required)

Student: For "SIGN," should the fingers be moving in towards the body at the top of the circle, or at the bottom of the circle?

Dr. Bill: Would you believe "either?"  It is done both ways in the Deaf Community.  I do it with the fingers moving in toward the body at the top of the circle. But lots of people do it the other way too. Out of curiosity, I just looked in a couple of the ASL dictionaries I have sitting here on my shelf and sure enough one shows the fingers moving back, the other shows them moving forward. 


In a message dated 10/25/2005 4:24:51 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, january_june@___com writes:

I can't seem to have each hand circling in different directions. My question is, is this a common mistake? Also, does it mean something completely different? In other words, if I signed 'sign' with my fingers both making circles in the same direction, would I end up offending someone or telling them I'm pregnant? Clumsy mistakes are no fun :P


Your hands should not "circle" in two different directions.  They actually circle in the same direction -- just one hand is further along in the circle than the other.  Think of two race cars on the same track.  One car is half a lap in front of the other.  They are going the same circular direction.  Compare this situation to the hands on an analog clock.  Suppose it were 2:45 p.m., the clock would look like this:
Oh sure, I understand "why" it is confusing.  In the clock example the long-hand has an upward movement while the short-hand has a downward movement. From that perspective it sounds like they are moving in different directions and they are in the sense that one is going up and one is going down - but when viewed from a larger perspective, the hands of the clock are moving in the same direction:  clockwise.  The same is true of the movement of your hands in this sign.  They both rotate in the same direction but they are on opposite sides of the circle.

- Dr. Bill

In a message dated 7/7/2007 4:47:33 A.M. Mountain Daylight Time, lwilt@ writes:

Hi, Dr. Bill,
I haven't asked you a question in a long time, but have one now...What is the difference (in usage) between the sign for sign: as in sign language
- one is the index fingers going around each other
- and the other is "s" hands throwing forward into relaxed "c" or "5" hands?
Thanks, Bill, hope all is well with you!
Linda Wilt
Easton, Md

Hi Linda,
The "index finger version means "signing in general."
The "S" hand version refers to the "skilled use of ASL" (not "contact signing" nor Signed English").
Both signs can be further modified (by changes in movement, path, speed, orientation, facial expression, and posture) to indicate signing of various styles and skill levels.
-- Dr. Bill
[Edit:  13 years later -- in 2020 -- the "throwing S's" version of "sign" now also means signing in general too and we just do the sign faster and/or with more facial expression to indicate "skilled" signing]

Question: A student asks: 
"I was wondering if the 2 versions of SIGN are technically supposed to be used in different contexts or if they can basically be used interchangeably? I took an ASL 1 course one semester about 4 years ago but was unable to continue on with the courses and only remember ever learning about the version where you use both pointer fingers and form circles but that could just be because they go over the other sign in another class."
- (Student's name removed for privacy.)

ASL, like all living languages, changes over time.
The sign for "sign / signing / signed / sign language" -- is changing and adapting currently -- right now Answers to this same question a few years ago are not the answer I'd give now.

Any answer I or someone else gives you now will likely be different a few years from now.

Both versions of the sign for "sign" can be modified (by changes in movement, path, speed, orientation, facial expression, and posture) to indicate signing of various styles and skill levels.

The most recent adaptation of the sign for "signing" that I've seen (as of this comment) is to do a one-handed S-5-S using a small "throw" and retract movement. (I'll be adding that version to my online ASL dictionary eventually.)

The fact is though you will still see "both" versions of the sign for "sign" -- and various applications of the signs for "sign" out in the real world because not all Deaf sign the same and not all Deaf decide at the same time to accept and use new versions of signs.

If someone in your social circle or a teacher "insists" that you should sign something a certain way -- sure, go ahead and make them happy. Then actually invest a significant amount of your own time watching videos of a variety of Deaf signers and form your own opinion based on a wide sample.




Also see:  STUDENT

Neologism: Advanced one-handed version of:

SIGN-[sign-something-in-fluent-ASL, do-a-sign, sign-language]

The one-handed "S-Claw-S" version of "SIGN" can be seen in conversations in which one of the signers chooses to sign one handed (for example -- due to holding a phone during a video call).


Question: Samantha ██████ commented / asked:
Ok, I'm sure you're sick of my name popping up, but you have been the best sounding board. I spoke with my friends translator today and she corrected my sign for "sign". I've been using the index finger in the "1" position vertically and circling in toward myself. She corrected me to use the index finger in the one position horizontally circling inward. Obviously, I'll use that instead, but is the vertical representation wrong or just lesser used?

Response from Dr. Bill:

I'm totally okay with your questions.  You might want to consider applying to join the Lifeprint-ASLU Facebook group and asking your questions there first to see what sort of answers you get.


Then after getting their feedback if you are unsatisfied, feel free to contact me directly.
My email is listed partway down the page at:

A bit of homework for you in regard to your experience of being corrected to do the sign for "sign" by doing it with the fingers horizontally and circling backward. I would like you to first consider my "caterpillar" model of ASL Curriculum Development:

Then set a personal goal to observe how at least 20 different advanced signers do the sign for "sign" and note the handshapes, positions, orientations, movements, etc.

Be aware that the sign for "SIGN" has actually evolved over the years. Many now do a loose "S>5>S" (or in other words start with fists, open them into loose five hands, and close them into fists again). I've even seen some people even do that version with just one hand (due to the influence of signing into video chat apps on phones).

Changes in the speed, size, and intensity of the sign for "SIGN" can be used to indicate varying levels of fluency.

So my response to you is that there is absolutely not just "one right way" to do the sign for "SIGN."

In regard to the orientation or positioning of the "1" handshape version of the sign for "SIGN" -- my advice is that the orientation (as done by those who choose to do the 1-handshape version and for whom signing is their main method of daily face to face communication) is neither fully vertical nor horizontal but rather is at a comfortable angle influenced by the individual signer's joints, tendons, and muscles. The exact angle tends to vary depending on whatever is comfortable for each signer's own physical limbs but rather than vertical or horizontal the arms (and index fingers) tend to be at more of a 45 degree angle (in the 1-handshape version of the sign for SIGN).

If someone around you decides to "correct" your signing, just smile, thank them for letting you know, and then try to remember to do the sign that way around that person but also to make an increased effort to see how the majority of native, adult, Deaf, socially-active, skilled signers do that sign in your area. This will necessitate going to local Deaf events and meetings.

I encourage you to remove yourself from being at the mercy of or dependent on the opinions of individual "experts." You can empower yourself by increasing your exposure to a broad range of skilled signers.

Do a Google search for, "Deaf events near me."

Also search for any Deaf Centers and your state's association for the Deaf and start attending anything open to the public.


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