English Grammar useful for learning Sign Language

F 210 syntax


We will attempt to simplify English grammar for a better understanding of South African Sign Language.  If you are looking for more elaborate and detail explanations of English grammar, please read "Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation" written by John Seely.


Indefinite Articles = 'a' or 'an', Example: That is a pig.  I have an apple.

Definite Articles = 'the', Example: The pen is blue.

Syntax  = The sequence in which words are put together to form a sentence.

Eight Parts of Speech  In Sign Language, it is known as Elements of sentence construction = All the parts that make up a sentence.

To remember the Eight Parts of Speech / Elements of sentence construction, we have created an acronym called PAVIN PAC, which stands for: 

Preposition, Adverb, Verb, Interjection, Noun, Pronoun, Adjective, Conjunction


What Is a Preposition?

A preposition is a word or a group of words that is placed before a noun or a pronoun to show a relationship in a sentence.  

Some examples : "above", "before", "except", "in", "on", "under", "in front of", "behind", "next to", "between", "to", "since", "with". "from", "after", "upon".

Sentence example: His going to work.

What Is an Adverb?

Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives or other adverbs.

Some examples : "very", "really", "almost", "never", "always", "nearly", "quickly", "slowly", "usually", "freely".

Most of the time when you see a word+ly it is usually an adverb.

Sentence example: The dog eats slowly.  (The adverb "slowly" describe the verb "eat").


What Is a Verb?

A verb is the most fundamental element of sentence construction. Every sentence must have a verb! 

To determine the verb, look for action words ( kiss, kick, work, run etc.) or the following words: "is", "am", "are", "was", "were", "be", "being", "been", "has", "had", "have", "do", "does", "did". "shall", "will", "should", "would", "might", "may", "must", "can", "could".

Sentence examples:  1) The cat eats chicken. 2) John is happy! 3) I am Sam.


What Is an Interjection?

An interjection expresses strong emotion or surprise; it functions independently in a sentence. Usually followed by a comma or exclamation mark.

Some examples : Wow! Ah! Ouch! Oops!

Sentence example: 1) Ouch! You stepped on my toe! 2) Ah, that is an excellent car.

What Is a Noun?

A noun is a person, place, animal,  thing or an idea.

Some examples: "lion", "South Africa", "garden", "building", "movie", "love", "teacher", "Olga".

Sentence example: The moon is big tonight.

What Is a Pronoun? 

A pronoun functions as a replacement for a noun.

Some examples : "I", "you", "your", "it", "he", "she", "mine", "his", "hers", "we", "they", "theirs", "ours", "this", "that", "those", "us". 

Sentence example:  Jenny is sleepy, she is always tired.


What Is an Adjective?  

Adjectives describe nouns or pronouns.

Some examples : "brave", "little", "big", "old", "red", "some", "one", "two", "three", "smart", "happy", "old", "drunk". 

Sentence example:  1) That is a big rat. 2) I saw ten rats. 3) The child is thin.

What Is a Conjunction?

Conjunctions connects words, sentences, phrases or clauses.

Some examples : "and", "or", "but", "because".

Sentence example: 1) Johnny and Mpho are going to town. 2) You can have the blue hat or the brown hat.


Now that you know the parts of speech, we will look at  the basic pattern we use in English compared to Sign Language

The pattern we use in English is:

Subject + verb + object.

The boxer hit his opponent.

The girl kisses the boy.


Subject verb object
S verb O



The pattern we use in South African Sign Language is:





Subject Object Verb


Did you notice that we don't use indefinite articles such as 'an' or 'a' in Sign Language?

Did you notice that we didn't use, verb + 's'? In Sign Language, the verb always stays in base form. Example: 'Kick', 'kicks' or past tense 'kicked' remains 'kick' in Sign Language.


How do you know which one is the subject, verb or object?


Above picture example: "Mike Blue punches John Green".  

To determine the subject, ask: "Who performs the action?" or "What performs the action?"

Answer: Mike  (Mike is the subject). 


To determine the object, ask: "Who receives the action?" or "What receives the action?"

Answer: John (John is the object). 

To determine the verb, ask: "What action is performed?"

Answer: hit (hit is the verb)


Types of sentence

We can use sentences for four primary purposes in communication:

1)  to make a statement (positive or negative): That boy is from Ghana.  A cow cannot drink cola.

2)  ask a question: Is that a piece of paper that you are eating?

3)  to give an order or make a request: Don't put your finger in his ear!

4)  to make an exclamation: How expensive that house is!


South African Sign Language Grammar

 1.  The basic SASL structure is Subject, Object, Verb.  Example: MAN GIRL KISS

2.  If you need to ask a question, the question comes at the end of the sentence.  Example: MAN KISS WHO

3.  If there is time or date involved, the time or date comes at the beginning of the sentence.  Example: YESTERDAY, MAN GIRL KISS

4.  If there is time or date required when asking a question, the structure will be as follows:  Example: LAST WEEK, MAN KISS WHO?


Now that you have recapped on the basics of English, you are ready to learn the basic grammar of Sign Language.