Tense in ASL: Time concept syntax: Where should we put the
time concept in sentences?
Consider the sentence: "Have you ever lived in a big city?"
Many ASL instructors will tend to sign that as: PAST, CITY LARGE, YOU
I've never liked that sentence construction
because it creates "tense confusion." It could be argued that the
sentence is creating the meaning of "in the past the city was large, did
you live there (when it was large)?" Thus, for sentences involving the
concept of "have you ever" moving the time concept closer to the subject
"you" (rather than the object "the city") is more clear.
Or your local ASL teacher may want you to sign the sentence "Have you
ever lived in a big city?" -- this way: "PAST YOU LIVE BIG CITY YOU?"
That is quite a bit better.
During your class your should sign however your teacher wants you to
sign. He or she is the one who gives the grade and knows local/regional
After you get the grade you want, go out into the Deaf Community and see
how adult native ASL-signing Deaf people sign the concept "have you
Do your own research and I think you'll see what I'm talking about.
Now, as far as the technical reasons why I sign: "YOU LIVE BIG CITY PAST
YOU?" -- it has to do with the way ASL uses the sign "PAST" as a verb
paired with "YOU" to create a meaning of "did you?"
Notice how you often see your Deaf friends signing: YOU WANT COFFEE YOU?
(Do you want coffee?) YOU STUDENT YOU? (Are you a student?) YOU BED YOU?
(Are you going to bed?)
What is really happening on those sentences is the second YOU is being
done with raised eyebrows. In essence: YOU WANT COFFEE do-YOU? YOU
STUDENT are-YOU? YOU BED are-YOU-going? It is the final YOU that pairs
with the verb (in the form of raised eyebrows) -- not the first YOU. The
same holds true for the verb "did" when paired with YOU -- even when the
concept of "did" is expressed as the sign PAST. Thus we have
"blah, blah, blah did-YOU?" -- being expressed as "blah, blah, blah,
Hey, if your local instructor wants you to sign something a certain way.
Just do it. Then later on ask him/her, "So, why do we often see pronouns
copied at the end of sentences?" If he/she can't give you a clear,
specific answer or gives you some mumbo jumbo about "emphasis" -- he/she
is just making stuff up.
The real reason pronouns are often copied at the end of question
sentences is ostensibly due to the fact that during questions we are
using the eyebrows as an auxiliary verb -- combined with the fact that
we use those same eyebrows as punctuation.
Since ASL question punctuation takes place at the end of sentences our
eyebrow-based verbs tend to get yanked to the end of a sentence as well
to "kill two birds with one stone." Yah, yah, I used a cliché.
Focus eh? The point being that "one" raise of the eyebrow
accomplishes two things simultaneously:
1. Creates an auxiliary verb.
2. Creates a yes/no question.
Since we are going to raise our eyebrows (to create punctuation) at the
end of a yes/no sentence it feels natural (since it is efficient) to
create a "past tense" verb phrase such as "did you?" via signing "PAST
do-YOU?" We are functionally using the sign PAST to conjugate the
eyebrow-based auxiliary verb "DO" and turn it into "DID." I think it is
important here to point out that we are discussing how to sign a certain
type of question. This rightward movement of a time-concept-sign
only applies when you are are using a sign (such as PAST) to conjugate
raised-eyebrow-auxiliary verbs at the end of a sentence.
PAST I/ME LIVE BIG CITY.
YOU LIVE BIG CITY PAST do-YOU?
Still don't believe me?
Ask yourself this question:
How do you sign "...don't-LIVE..."?
Answer: "don't-LIVE" = [head-shake]-LIVE
How do you sign: "...didn't live..."?
Answer: "...didn't live" = PAST-[head-shake]-LIVE
How do you sign "LIVED"? As in, "In the past I did live there."
Answer: "...lived..." = PAST-[head-nod]-live
So, really those two sentences look like this:
PAST I/ME [head-nod]-LIVE BIG CITY.
YOU LIVE BIG CITY PAST [eyebrow-raise]-YOU?
Please note that there is no head-nod next to "LIVE" in the question
version of this sentence.
Next, consider these two sentences:
"Did you ever live in a big city?"
"Have you ever lived in a big city?"
We can shorten those to:
"Did you live in a big city?"
"Have you lived in a big city?"
Why do we see "live" in one sentence and "lived" in the other?
The fact is they are both right in English.
That is because English can pair the word "have" with the suffix "-ed"
in past tense phrases.
However the sign HAVE is much more limited in ASL. We would not sign:
HAVE YOU LIVE BIG CITY?
Instead, in ASL we tend to use the "did you" version.
"Did" (when used as part of an ASL question) is expressed via raised
eyebrows and at the end of a sentence.
"Did you ever live in a big city?" = YOU LIVE BIG CITY did-YOU? = YOU
LIVE BIG CITY PAST-do-YOU? = YOU LIVE BIG CITY PAST
- Dr. Bill
A colleague writes:
Dear Dr. Bill,
Thank you. Your explanation makes perfect sense. I think some ASL
instructors have learned that in ASL we establish 'time' at the
beginning of a sentence and fail to realize that there are exceptions to
that so-called 'rule.' I would sign: you, in-the-past,
large, city, live-in, you? Would that be correct? Or
can you suggest a better way to sign it?
(Name changed to protect his/her privacy.)
The previous size of the city is not the aspect of the sentence on which
we want to focus.
"You" (our conversation partner) previously living in or not living in
the city -- is that on which we want to focus.
We are not trying to say, "Once upon a time there was a large city, and
in it lived a young princess named Lynderella."
Instead we are trying to say, "Once upon a time a young princess named
Lynderella lived in a large city."
We do not want to add tense to the city.
We want to add tense to "live."
We are not trying to change "city" to "in the past the city."
We are trying to change "live" to "lived."
Or rather, "Once upon a time did you live in a large city?"
I'd go with:
YOU PAST LIVE BIG CITY YOU?
BIG CITY, YOU PAST LIVE YOU?
BIG CITY, YOU LIVE BEFORE YOU?
Or my favorite:
YOU LIVE BIG CITY BEFORE YOU?
But, no, I don't like the sentence:
PAST BIG CITY LIVE YOU?
We want to know your history, not the history of the city.
The sign for PAST needs to be closer to either YOU or LIVE than it is to
I think another "issue" I have with the discussion of this sentence (and
similar sentences) is the fact that many ASL instructors fail to ask,
"What was discussed prior to this sentence occurring in the
We act like the sentence takes place in a vacuum. Instead we need
to consider if earlier in the conversation it has been established where
the conversation partner lives CURRENTLY!!! The use of a time
concept in the middle of a paragraph or conversation is (or often should
be) influenced by previously shared information.
Someone asked how do we sign "Today we are going
to grandma's house" -- using ASL grammar.
Just sign: TODAY WE GO GRANDMA HOUSE.
Any other sentence form will require more effort.
If there is no competing or compelling reason to "mark" the sentence in
some way you should stick with the simplest form:
Comment: GO GRANDMA HOUSE
You should "only" muck with the above grammar for reasons such as:
1. The audience is bored and you need to use a rhetorical "what-DO?" to
get and hold their attention.
2. There is some confusion what is being done when.
3. There is some ambiguity as to whether we are already at grandma's
4. There is a need to clarify that we are physically going to her house
rather than simply viewing it remotely.
5. There is some doubt as to whether or not the house is actually
The list could get longer but the fact remains that the simplest and
most direct ASL version of that sentence is:
TODAY WE GO GRANDMA HOUSE.
It is understood that the house belongs to grandma. You can even think
of "grandma's house" as a two-word term (for a specific destination)
rather than "a house owned by grandma."