Basic Structure: Symbol Grids

Signs are written in a grid structure from a center location box outward. The hands (a symbol representing both shape and orientation) go to the left (dominant, D) and the right (non-dominant, ND). Movement for each hand is placed on the outside of that hand, typically a direction or path, with a second box for extra details. Two additional boxes may be placed to the right to describe non-manual components, such as a facial expression or movement of the shoulders and torso. (Note that the outlines are for illustration only, and do not appear in finished signs. The width of each box changes to fit its contents, and only the boxes needed to describe the sign are used.)

Sign Grid


Location box

The location box usually contains the symbol for the head, torso, or another body part with a location and proximity specifier (see location). If the location is the non-dominant hand, the location box is eliminated, and the specifier is placed directly on the non-dominant hand. If the location moves or is in a non-neutral position (e.g. a rotated torso or tilted head), the symbol is placed below. Currently, starting and ending locations are placed on the same image, and clarified by movement.

These example show 1) contact on both sides of the torso with rotation from side to side, 2) a location near the side of the head with nodding movement, and 3) fingertip contact on the non-dominant hand.
1. torso rotate contact          2. head nod          3. NDT

Hand boxes

If the hand being described retains the same shape and orientation for the entire sign, the box simply contains the appropriate symbol (see hands). If the hand changes during the sign, the box is divided by a diagonal line. The starting shape is placed in the upper left and ending shape in the lower right. A solid line line indicates one movement, and a dashed line indicates repetition.

These examples show 1) a single movement from palm forward to palm down with the index finger extended, and 2) repeated movement between an open hand and a tapered hand facing forward.
1. hand change2          2. hand change rep

Movement boxes

Though a lot of movement information can be combined into a single symbol (see movement), it is sometimes necessary to use more than one symbol to show different types of movement. In these cases, “extra” movement components (shaking, contact, etc.) are placed in the outer position with directional movements inside, closer to the hands. The only symbol that is placed below a direction or path rather than beside it is “cross” (when a hand moves across the vertical center line of the body).

These examples show 1) movement in which the hands shake and alternate up and down, and 2) movement that bounces inward and ends up on the opposite side of the body. Both are symbols that would be used on the dominant side.
1. shake up and down          2. bounce cross

Non-manual boxes

Like locations, an entire head, torso, or other body part is described with combined symbols in a single non-manual box. The second is for another part of the body. Like hands, if a facial expression or other non-manual position changes during the sign, the two positions are separated by a dashed (repeated) or solid (one time) line.

These examples show 1) a face with a furrowed brow, squinted eyes, a wrinkled nose, and a grimacing mouth, 2) lip pursing while the elbows move up and down, and 3) a repeated biting movement.
1. face grimace          2. bird nms          3. biteNM