Rules for Quoting or Quotation of Sign Language?

I’ve been working on a story where one of my main characters speaks solely in sign language. What I want to learn is the proper grammatical way to do this.
Would I just treat it as if they are speaking and replace “he/she said,” with “he/she signed?”

Something like —
“I’m going to the store,” John said.
Adam signed, “Will you get me a soda pop?”

Or do I use italics? Or is there some other rule I don’t even know about?

I tried to find something about this in my few writing and grammar books, and Google just keeps trying to take me to “learn sign language” websites.

Any help would be appreciated.

Really interesting question.
I use italics for unspoken thoughts.
That eliminates the need for he said, she thought, etc.
And signs are unspoken thoughts, yes?
So, try italics, as long as you don’t have speaking characters
Who are silently thinking, and we need to read that.
Hope that makes sense.

What about actually putting the sings in there? I know Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Institute for the Deaf (a tech focused program) has representation as well as “interpretation” sheets. It might be a gimmick, but having to look the translation up while reading the book would teach a lot of folks exactly what it is like to be a foreigner or at least partially handicapped.

If you do go this route, just make sure the translation sheet is a pull out. There is nothing worse than not being able to have the translation sheet right next to what you are reading.

That out of the way, keep in mind that there is not a 1:1 sign to spoken path. I was shocked at just how much of the signed world is intuitive and contextual. It might be an interesting point to shoe the emotional aspect of being limited in your ability to express yourself. Imagine if there were only a couple hundred words in a spoken language. Could be interesting.

Like druid, I use italics for unspoken thoughts; that might work well for signing. My (limited) experience with signing suggests Jaysen is onto something also. Problem with an internal reference of any kind is that it will interrupt the flow of narrative/dialogue, and become an exercise in itself.

Perhaps if you incorporate a few basic signs, and italicize the other words/context around them, you’ll be able to develop an internal language. Something like that happens in Clockwork Orange, and even more so in Riddley Walker, where the reader is forced to “learn” a (partially) new language. By the time I reached the end of Riddley Walker, I felt a jolt of absolute confusion when suddenly, in the middle of the page, there appeared a long passage in ordinary contemporary English. That’s how effective the “translation” had been.


According to my editor (your mileage may vary), you do exactly what you did in your example.

The thoughts are NOT considered unspoken and apparently some in the deaf community find the use of italics offensive.

Again… your mileage may vary.


On a whim contacted an acquaintance from NITD. While she was unwilling to provide anything like a URL or contact point, she was adamant that you need to contact a representative of a local organization specializing in relations with the deaf and hard of hearing. Apparently Apollo16 under understated the potential sensitivity.

If I were in your position I would start with NITD. For me this is local, but I am certain they can help you with any research as well as with direct questions.

First off, thanks for all your suggestions.

I do have a few parts where italics are the thoughts of the POV character. So I might have to rethink that, if I do use italics. I don’t want to confuse or offend anybody.

I know sign languages are their own unique language. I learned a lot of American Sign Language (which I have mostly forgotten) in school and it almost had a Japanese feel to it, the way they use the verbs. I’m not sure if that makes any sense unless you ever tried to learn Japanese (or any other language for that matter). The story is also based in a fantasy world so the sign language would be different from any other sign language. In a fantasy world no one should be speaking English, but no one would understand me if I wrote a whole book in a made up language.

I was really wanting to have basically a more direct translation for the reader. I don’t really want to have to play the role of teacher. I’m thinking it would be more like a movie with subtitles. One character will speak and the “signer” with sign but your are reading the subtitles to make out what was said.

I was planing on exploring the emotional aspect of it. The character that makes use of the sign languages has an extroverted personality, but is often forced in to behave like an introverted personality because so few understand them.

I have brought up the website but really haven’t had a chance to find what I’m looking for.

Thanks, if anybody knows anything else feel free to share.

I’ve both read and written books with deaf characters, and I did my student teaching at a school for the deaf when I was in college. Dialogue is typed just as any other speaking character. Sign language is a language, a form of communicating with others. It’s not internal thought. The only thing you change is how you tag the dialog – signed instead of said, although you don’t necessarily even have to do that. Also, a lot of sign language is communicated through facial expressions and the dimensions of the sign as well as hand gestures. Turning a statement into a question can be done entirely through facial expression, for example, as can turning a positive statement into a negative. So if you wanted to capture some of the nuances of sign language, you’d have your character raise or furrow his brow, shake his head, sign a word close to his chest or spread out, etc. If you sprinkle these judiciously throughout the story (just as you would do if a character had an accent), you can give readers a feel for the expressiveness of the language without bogging them down in every detail.

You might also want to work into your story that sign language can vary widely between countries. ASL is closer to French Sign Language than it is to British Sign Language (in the UK, they fingerspell with two hands, for example). So you could have your character meet a deaf person from another country, and they would have the same communication problems as an English speaker talking to someone who only speaks Japanese.

Another issue is deaf culture. It’s not enough for the character to not hear the conversations around him or to struggle to make himself understood by those who don’t sign. Many deaf people consider deafness to be a cultural difference rather than a disability. Most are very opinionated about the use of cochlear implants, signing vs lip-reading/speaking, mainstream education vs specialized schools, and so on. Many belong to Deaf social groups where they share the common experiences of growing up deaf.

I hope this helps!

Yes Jennk, that helps a lot. Thanks to everyone that replied.