I am writing a story in which one of the main characters is Deaf, and therefore communicates with other leads using sign language. Not being a native speaker of English, I am having trouble with coming up the appropriate way to remind the reader that the characters are communicating using sign language. Here are a few examples I have thought of:

"How was your school today?" Anna signed to Emily. "What did you learn?"

"I can draw a butterfly now." Emily signed back with enthusiasm.

"We will go to the park tomorrow and chase a lot of butterflies." Anna signed Emily.

Is it correct to use "Anna signed to Emily", "Emily signed back" and "Anna signed Emily"? Are there better ways to phrase this?

Also, once the plot is set and the readers made aware that these two characters always use sign language to communicate, I am thinking of dropping the reference to sign language, and maybe mention it once in a while to remind the reader.

I would like to hear what native speakers think about this approach. Any tips/suggestions are very much welcome.

  • In Clan of the Cave Bear, it is addressed at the beginning that the Clan uses sign language and grunts to communicate. After that, when Ayla learns to understand their language, the author only sporadically refers to the communication method (usually when it is pertinent).
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 19:26

2 Answers 2


Not a signed language user or expert, though I had once to learn a bit about it. I think replacing "to say" by "to sign" is probably OK. But some other verbs can be used as usual.

For example, why write "Emily signed back" rather than "Emily replied", which is independent of the communication medium, unless insisting on the medium, or on a change of medium, is important. You would probably not write "Emily said back".

For example also: "« why don't you draw a flower too » suggested Anna" does not need to insist in the medium. (independently of the use of « »).

  • Thank you. Your suggestion on using normal communication words such as reply makes sense. I will also look into the use of guillemets also...
    – visakh
    Commented Jun 11, 2014 at 10:14
  • @visakh The guillemets « » suggestion may help understanding in some cases. It was originally motivated by the fact that signed language can be technically considered a foreign language (up to a point). I wonder however how signers would feel about that view (ask?), or the fact that it is constantly emphasized in a book by « » (unless it is critical for understanding). I would actually check how foreign languages are usually handled in novels, and the fact that not all characters understand what is being said. This should be a good guide.
    – babou
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 11:57
  • 1
    I've read a number of articles by people who communicate in sign language in which they emphasize that American Sign Language is not a set of signs to represent English words, but an entirely separate language. Some are rather adamant about this. I rather get the impression that they think it is almost an insult to suppose that ASL is "English but with your hands". I've never known a deaf person personally to ask about it.
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 17:41
  • If the story continually switches back and forth between English and sign language, and if this matters to the story -- like it matters that Sally doesn't know what Bob is saying to Mary because they're using sign language and Sally doesn't understand it -- then you need to do something to make it clear or the story can get confusing. You also better be clear in you own mind: I've occasionally read stories where characters are supposed to be speaking in foreign languages just conveniently translated into English for the reader, but the author slips up and I find myself saying, "Hey, wait ...
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 17:44
  • ... a minute, how did Bob understand what Francois said to Margueritte? We were just told a few pages earlier that Bob doesn't know French."
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 17:45

Use guillemets « » for signed speech, as discussed in this question:

How does one present spoken dialogue as a secondary language to signed speech?

Then your reader will always know when someone is signing or speaking aloud, and you can use the tag "signed" as often as you'd use "said."

  • I would also point out most of the time, using this style for any language you want to make a figurative translation, not a literal one. That is, if your novel is written in English, the signed dialog should be grammatically correct English, not the actual literal translation of sign language into English as Sign Language typically does not "Sound" like English when translated. But do try and learn the language as there are unique puns in sign language which can be explained in English+
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 25, 2021 at 13:40
  • + As an example, one American Sign Language pun I know is the one for "Pasteurized Milk" which involves taking the sign for "Milk" and moving it in front of your face just above the bridge of the nose... now it's "Past your Eyes'ed Milk" Another pun tactic is to perform a sign for a letter and the motion for a word to form a new "word" to describe someone. The one I heard was to perform the motion for "Liar" but with the hand in formation of the letter "C"... the new word was "Clinton" (back when I heard it, it was for Bill, not Hilary).
    – hszmv
    Commented Oct 25, 2021 at 13:46

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