If one character is using sign language and lip reading while the other is speaking normally, how do you represent the lines of the former? Quotations with "he signed" attribution or italics? E.g.

"When did you first feel the pain?" asked the doctor.

Two days ago, signed the patient.

  • 3
    Okay, I have to ask. If the doctor is relying on the signer's lip reading ability to be understood, I assume he doesn't understand sign language. So why does patient sign their response?
    – Joel Shea
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 23:38
  • Er, it's the other way around. It's the patient who is lip reading (because the doctor only knows sign language enough to understand a few simple phrases). Some people who use sign language do it habitually even when the other person is not proficient in it.
    – HNL
    Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 3:15
  • 1
    Per both answers, italics is a quick and easy way to do it. But if there's going to be a lot of this type of dialogue, you might consider using a distinctive font for the signed communications. And as a rule use a clarifying verb like "signed, indicated, gestured" for the first one in an interchange whenever it's been several pages since the last one. After that, use non-specific verbs like "suggested, replied, answered" and avoid verbs "said". But you might get away with the occasional "shouted" or similar in a metaphorical sense (perhaps in quotes to alert the reader to what you're doing). Commented Jan 18, 2012 at 18:03
  • 1
    @JoelShea In the actual scene (this is just a dummy) the signing makes a little more sense. The deaf character has no other means to communicate with the other person under the circumstance. I'll take SimCom into consideration, though.
    – HNL
    Commented Jan 19, 2012 at 3:04
  • 3
    @FumbleFingers In my experience, using anything other than a monospaced font with just italics in a manuscript is a good way to annoy the editor!
    – HNL
    Commented Jan 19, 2012 at 3:06

7 Answers 7


Italics make sense when sign is not the language most of the dialogue is in (I think this is a common tactic for "secondary" languages). But if sign is the main language in your piece, I would just put it in quotes like any other dialogue.

I guess the only question I would have for you is what is the main language of the dialogue? If it's sign language, I wouldn't give it second class treatment in italics.

  • 3
    The main language versus occasional language point is key. Too many italics will clutter the page visually.
    – justkt
    Commented Jan 16, 2012 at 18:06
  • The main language is indeed English, or in the case of the actual dialogue that I'm writing, a common interplanetary language (the actual scene is a spaceship captain meeting a large, deaf man with a battle axe) :-)
    – HNL
    Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 3:37
  • So, I'd look to set your sign language in quote marks, but with some other character that can open and close. Since it's a scifi setting, it's useful in that you might have alien languages that you want the readers to know but not the characters. Think like a subtitled foreign language in a film or tv show.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 6, 2021 at 12:35
  • No, don't ever put signed dialogue in quotes. Quotes are the explicit convention for spoken language. Sign language is not spoken, but signed. Don't confuse the reader by representing it as something it is not. Use italics and nothing else. Italics are not "second class treatment" but markup that has meaning. If you want to represent sign language as what it is, use illustrations of signing hands. If you represent sign dialogue as words, then the words are a translation like a translation from a foreign language. You are translating signs into words for the reader. Markup accordingly.
    – user49579
    Commented Apr 20, 2021 at 9:42

Yes, italics is exactly how I'd do it. Dean Koontz did that in Watchers, as I recall.


You could also use normal text set off by "guillemets", which are symbols used in some other languages instead of quotation marks. See the Wikipedia article 'Guillemet'. There are several styles, e.g. with or without extra spaces, with the guillemets pointing inwards » « instead of outwards, « » etc.

It would look like:

"Hi Dave."

« Good morning Sarah. »

This is distinctive, and wouldn't use italics for another meaning in addition to emphasis, thought that are not spoken out loud, etc.


When it comes to actually writing the signer's line, I tend to write them between apostrophes. I find it easier and a little more visually appealing than italics, but still allows the reader to differentiate the two languages. I more commonly save the italicization for internal thoughts.

'I wish I could go to the park.' vs. I wish I could go to the park.


I find italics to be easier to understand as the reader. It makes it less complicated and can be caught by the eye pretty rapidly and the reader will learn to recognize the person's dialogue by the italics. It's just overall a lot simpler.


Sign language is not merely a representation of English with signs but a language of its own. For a brief introduction refer to the section on the relationship between sign and spoken languages in the Wikipedia article on sign languages.

Therefore, if you represent sign language in an English text, the English words are in fact a translation from a different language. Treat it as such. Specifically:

  1. If all (or most) characters in your text communicate in sign language, use quotes.

    Think of a book written in English but set in France with the characters speaking French. For the sake of your English readers you will render all dialogue in English, as if the characters were speaking English. Do the same when the story is set in a community of signing persons who use sign language to communicate.

  2. If most of your chacters communicate in English most of the time and sign language is the exception, markup the English representation of sign language as italics.

    Non-spoken language – such as written text or speech from a device (e.g. radio) – are conventionally marked up as italics. Sign language is not spoken, so use the markup for non-spoken languages.


I think it would make the most sense to use the primary language in quotations, because as the previous answer stated, using too many italics would end up making the literature seem cluttered.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.