I have chosen to show an accented English that is only comprehensible to speakers of the secondary language.

The topic of translated sign language has been beat up and I accept that there is no established convention. The guillemots are commonly recommended as a standard secondary language translational quote, however I am trying to avoid excessive translation since the language is American Sign Language, the novel is English; therefore I prefer to keep the “accent,” which I also do with my French and British characters. In other words, I don’t want to “anglicize” one character’s dialogue while accenting everyone else’s.

The work contains all of the following dialogue forms:

  • French spoken language - italics, quotation marks
  • Chinese spoken language - italics, quotation marks
  • English (main) dialogue - plaintext, quotation marks
  • foreign accents / vernacular - plaintext, quotation marks
  • ASL visual language - plaintext, unique quotation marks
  • (English) Inner dialogue / thought - italics

The convention I chose is given below:

=Thanks!= Delano gestured to the conductor as he stepped down. A tip of his cap was the reply, then with a grating rasp he pulled the lever to shut the doors with a hiss; the bus lurched away. I become so aware of sounds when I am with Del, just trying to imaging going through life without them. I followed him to the corner of the building. =This way.= I nodded.

We walked down Trundle Street to the park boundary behind some apartments. The shadows were long back here, the sun didn’t reach well between the building and the park wall. Lamps lined the back of the buildings, desperately trying to fill in.

=Here.= He pointed me to a gate in a dark section of the wall. Someone had pushed an old rolling trashcan in front of it, and I heard some mice. Obviously Liam did not, so I tapped his shoulder.

=Mice here.=

=You afraid?= he signed, a mocking smirk beaming from his face.

=Ha ha,= said I, with a dose of my own sarcasm. Sometimes I don’t know if I really offend him when I point out sounds or not. But he’s not easily ruffled. I appreciate that most about Del. There are no hearing people I can speak to as easily as Del.

=How did you find this?=

=I’ve come here for a long time. Told only you. I wander around when bored.=

“A secret opening? And you never told me about this before?” He tipped his head, lifting a repentant eyebrow.

=Now you know!=

Getting through the old disused gate with a little trouble, I carried my thoughts on. “You’re mom must go nuts when she can’t find you.” I spoke as we walked through the woods. “I can barely get away from my mom even with two ears. She’s an absolute hawk over me. I don’t know what I will say to her about being late now, but I’ve gotten to the point that I just can’t care. You know what I mean?”


“I don’t even get to open my own mail, Like I need anyone…” At that point I had been talking over my shoulder without paying attention, and my head ran straight into a large branch. “Ow!”

Del almost dropped to the ground he was laughing so hard, while I dropped to my knees in pain and began rubbing my scalp.

I hope this passage demonstrates my intent to keep the ASL “accent” rather than translating ASL into perfect American English, and also mix lip reading regular English.

Will the equals sign be misunderstood in this application in fiction?

Once more, to be clear: I am not asking what is proper here, but instead, if this is specifically improper due to some conflicting use of that symbol. If equals are used in some other literary context, I am not aware of it. Obviously it can still be used in any math that may pop up (I can’t imagine where), because nested quotes already have multiple contexts. I suspect readers will comprehend an equals sign used in some equation easily enough as well.

  • I'm confused by this. How can you show ASL as an "accent" of English when it's a different language with different syntax? Do you mean you're trying to make it look like it's distinct from English? (I know next to nothing about ASL but I do know that it e.g. doesn't have do support, as we do in English questions.)
    – Laurel
    Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 14:05
  • @Laurel “Zis is a goot qvestion, ja?” Accents have unique grammatical structures which paint a voice in dialogue. Translations omit this. Do I need more examples in the description? Spoken accents can simply use “ “. It only works because everyone “hears” the same thing. ASL is only “heard” by people who sign, so quotes would make it impossible to follow who is “hearing” the conversation. This is why both translation and quotes accents are ineffective.
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 14:27
  • 1
    I think I would opt for italicized text. Equals signs would just confuse and annoy me as a reader, though I might get used to it after a few pages if I haven't thrown the book in a corner in the meanwhile.
    – user54131
    Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 18:43
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    Accents have unique grammatical structures That's a remarkable claim. Are you confusing accents and dialects? Or are you suggesting that someone who speaks English, say, with a French, perhaps, accent speaks English in a grammaticlly unique way? Rather than just with a less-than-native competence in English? Commented Apr 3, 2022 at 11:01
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    Have you looked into existing conventions for writing sign-language dialog? An answer on this question says that in "Watchers" italics were used. And I would expect there are more books using signed dialog. So looking into that might give an idea of what is conventional.
    – user54131
    Commented Apr 3, 2022 at 17:05

1 Answer 1


I would do one of two things.

  1. Use italics. They have been used for a very wide variety of different things to indicate any kind of speech/thoughts/communication that is not the traditional spoken word. It will be easily recognized by any readers and make your work more accessible.
  2. If you want to be avant garde and you think you can get away with it, maybe you do go with the equals signs. I would only go this route if all three of these were true:

A) you can come up with a compelling reason to use them instead of italics,

B) what you're writing really is super high-caliber literary fiction (get feedback from the right people to confirm this), and

C) you have clout in literary circles so you think people will accept you doing something totally new. Otherwise...I wouldn't go this route.

Edit: since you're already using italics for something else (inner dialogue), I would no longer recommend that. Doing something different like the equals signs is probably a good way to go. Maybe at the beginning of your book you just have a page that just explains this to the reader so they know from the beginning what those are.

  • 2
    Good points, in my opinion, an audience needs to know two things to follow a written dialogue: The speaker, and the recipient(s). Painting the scene establishes these two agents. Signing singles out a subset of the recipients who either have to be pointed out each scene (cumbersome), or delimited by a convention. Italics already has several conventional uses that would be confusing. Foreign languages are audible while signing is visual, so it is not a given that everyone present even knows the speaker is "speaking." Readers' expectations with foreign languages don't match up well IMO.
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Jun 30, 2022 at 16:47
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    So if I used italics, I feel I would be overusing them, and using them in multiple contexts (there is a lot of inner dialogue). If I treat it the same as a second "spoken" language, the reader's expectations will lead them down the garden path. If I write, "Sam signed to Bob" every time, I add reams of pages to the work. And no real convention exists. So what negative reaction would this create? Or perhaps I can have my publisher simply print a custom glyph for my work, unambiguously ASL.
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Jun 30, 2022 at 16:54
  • @VogonPoet You've got some excellent points. I didn't think to ask whether you were already using italics for something else, but now that I know that, that would change my recommendation. Also, no matter what you decide, I just think it's great that you are thinking through how to bring sign languages into fiction, as well as how to handle it in a considerate fashion. I really hope your book does well. I would love to be a beta reader if you need one.
    – levininja
    Commented Jun 30, 2022 at 20:33
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    Thank you @Levininja I will keep that in mind. ASL is the key to an escape plan devised by this main supporting character.
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Jul 6, 2022 at 23:11

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