I was starting to leave a comment on this excellent question when I realized I had come up with a second question which was equally intriguing.

If you're writing a story where 95% of the communication is signed, and you decide that you're simply going to use quotes to indicate signed speech, with attributives ("Where are you going?" he signed. "To Venice!" she responded, exaggerating the gestures in her excitement.), what happens when the signers come across someone who speaks aloud?

How is spoken speech formatted as a secondary or cameo-use language to signed speech?

5 Answers 5


FWIW, I faced exactly this problem in a novel I wrote a few years ago that included a large amount of both spoken and signed dialogue. Having such a large amount of italicized text was distracting for the reasons discussed in other answers, so my approach was a punctuation convention:

"Spoken dialogue goes in normal quotes like this," he said.

«But signed dialogue goes in guillemets,» she signed in response.

In the first few chapters I always pointed out the change in mode by adding a "said" or "signed" dialogue tag, but after that I regarded the convention as sufficiently well-established and only used the punctuation. My beta readers found this easy to follow and never once complained. Since the distinction between what was spoken and what was signed was sometimes important to the plot, this allowed me to signal these shifts without having to beat the reader over the head with it.

[I originally added this answer to your other question, but I think that it is actually more appropriate here.]

  • 1
    I think this is excellent, and makes considerable sense. Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 19:42
  • 5
    This is a common punctuation for dialogue in a secondary language in comic books, usually with an asterisk to denote the language.
    – Joel Shea
    Commented Jan 18, 2012 at 11:12
  • Ooh, you're right! I had forgotten that. Clearly I need to read more comics. :) Commented Jan 19, 2012 at 13:26

I think it's less about which language is the main or secondary (or tertiary or...fourthary?) and more about differentiating between them (as I stated in my answer to the other question).

But broader than that, I think it would depend on the scene. Do the characters understand each other? Are they communicating entirely in the secondary language? If it's yes and yes, I would say do the whole thing in quotes. If it's a yes and no, I would denote the secondary language in italics. If it's two no's, you're writing a sitcom.

More thoughts:

Something I didn't address before was consistency. If you decorate your second language in italics in one place, then do an entire scene in that language using quotes, I think you will confuse your reader. So the real assessment is what makes the most sense for your scene (and I stick by my conditional statement above), but then also what will not be jarring or strange for the reader based on what else they have seen throughout the rest of your piece.

  • ("Quaternary" is the adjective you wanted.) But if the two speaking characters understand and can hear one another, what's differentiating the spoken dialogue from the signed dialogue? Wouldn't that make everything dependent on attributives? What happens when you get two speakers and a signer in a story where the main language is signing? If the two "minority language" speakers were using Klingon in an English-text book, it'd be pretty obvious what needed to be translated, but how do you indicate that for signed speech in a textual medium? Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 11:34

Treating sign as spoken language makes sense and is generally the right way to go. But remember, you're not actually quoting what someone signs. You're quoting the English translation of what someone signs. So you should treat ASL signers exactly like you would treat any other foreign language.

ASL is a language in its own right, not derived from English, and has its own vocabulary, syntax, etc. It's not just finger signs but involves movements of the hands, arms, head, face, mouth, etc. E.g., "Where are you going?" he signed would literally be "[YOU] [GO] [WHERE?]" he signed, substituting the proper signs for the bracketed transcriptions and using standard ASL syntax. This of course it not very helpful way to transcribe! It would be as if we transcribed French "Où vas-tu?" as "ooh vah too" or "Where go you?"

The point is that ASL is a language and you should treat it as such in writing. So if you would just quote a French person speaking in French, do the same with ASL. If you italicize foreign speech, then do that. In my opinion you need to aim for two goals: (1) accurate depiction of ASL as a foreign language and (2) reader comprehension.


In this case, I think the best approach would be to quote the spoken dialogue as regular dialogue and use the attributives to differentiate between signed and spoken content.

I think it's fine to drop the attributives if it is clear who is the source and s/he has been established as a "signer" or "speaker."

Italics should be reserved for foreign words (i.e. not in the language of the narrative).


Why do you need a differentiation in the first place?

If the actors can communicate (one is deaf-mute, but can read lips, the other one can read signs) then I see no need for a special formatting style (or even other quotation marks which would be also an option). So go with Cliff's suggestion here.

If they do not understand each other then you probably want to show that in a different way. When using the perspective of one person in this scene, you do not need to mark speech of the other person. Because whatever he says/signs is not understandable by the other one. So you do not show it as speech, because your POV-character does not understand it and you show his puzzlement instead.

  • 1
    The reason you differentiate is that 99.99etc.% of fiction is written so that spoken speech is in quotes. This hypothetical piece would be a change from established formatting. If you establish at the beginning that signed speech is in quotes, and a speaker speaks, how is the reader supposed to know the speech is spoken aloud and not signed? Pick up any book in a bookstore and find text in quotes. That indicates it's spoken aloud. Since this standard is being inverted, the converse has to have something happen to it in parallel, doesn't it? Having everything in quotes would be confusing. Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 18:24
  • "You have killed her," he signed me. "No, no!" I almost shout. "It was an accident, you must believe me." - Where is the problem, @Lauren, I do not see it. Quotes show a conversation (dialogue/monologue) and yes, normally it is spoken. But why should the reader have a problem imagining a signed conversation, when you tell him it is one? Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 18:51
  • @Lauren: Not all quoted text is spoken out loud. Quotes can denote any verbatim text: "I like bananas," the monkey wrote on the typewriter. (Then again, I've struggled with a similar issue: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/2144/…) Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 18:52
  • @Cliff: yes, of course, you are correct. But the discussion is about text being spoken or signed, not repeated (that is, quoted). Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 19:39
  • @JohnSmithers: I do find your example confusing, first off, and second, that would mean that every time someone signed, it would have to be attributed specifically. Isn't different formatting for different methods of communication easier to understand, and a little more elegant? (Dare I mention telepathy, as used in fantasy books, by way of example?) Commented Jan 17, 2012 at 19:41

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.