Step Five: Writing Non-manual Signals Via Extramanual Marks

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The Two Categories of Extramanual Marks

Extramanual marks are divided in two categories, facial expressions and body movements. The first job of extramanual marks is to add meaning to an ASL word, and the second is to help with ASL grammar.

Eyebrow Marks

Facial expressions in ASL begin with the eyes — more specifically, the eyebrows. They are usually written at the top left of an ASL word.

Eyebrow Marks

Eyebrow Marks

They also serve as important ASL grammatical markers. One significant example is the raised eyebrow mark’s role in identifying the topic of a sentence by putting emphasis on a certain ASL word.

Raised Eyebrow Sentence

An example of a sentence using the raised eyebrow mark as topicalization. English gloss: “Walk good.”

Two raised eyebrows at the beginning and the end of a sentence means that the sentence is a question.


Asking a question in written ASL.

The squint has two roles as well. It can serve as part of an ASL word that describes an object, or to indicate a slower pace in expressing any ASL word. Occasionally it may be written for emphasis.

Very Slow

Example of an ASL word that uses the squint mark to change the speed of signing.

Questioning Marks

The knit eyebrow mark has an expanded use as part of a library of “wh-questions.” This group of questioning marks exist because some regional ASL words that ask a question have the opposite meaning. Those marks are used in situations where clarity in the request is needed.

Questioning Marks

Questioning Marks

Using a raised eyebrow mark together with a knit eyebrow mark signifies that the question is rhetorical, as in the answer to the question will be given by the signer.

Example of a rhetorical question. English gloss: "John go store. Why? Need food."

Example of a rhetorical question. English gloss: “John go store. Why? Need food.”

Mouth Morphemes

The mouth has a supporting role in giving meaning to many ASL words. The mouthing marks document specific mouth positions.

Mouthing Marks

Click to see larger image of all mouthing marks.

They can be combined with eyebrow marks at the top left of a word.


Example of an ASL word using both eyebrow marks and mouthing marks.

Body Movements

Locatives have another role in that they fill in for body movements. They are grammatical markers as well.

Head Nod and Shoulder Shift

Examples of Body Movement Extramanual Marks

A unique mark within this category is the nose crinkle. In ASL it shows approval or adds meaning to an overall facial expression.

Nose Crinkle

The specialized nose crinkle mark.

Eyebrow marks, mouthing marks, and the nose crinkle can be combined to create one expression.

Combined Mark Expression

An expression of surprise, mixed in with a little disgust and shock.


Identify the following ASL extramanual marks:

Practice Assignment 1

Write the extramanual marks that correspond with the following English gloss:

Raised eyebrows
Pursed lips
Shoulder shift to the right

Next: The Blueprint for Written ASL Words

Answer Key:

Wan eyebrows, puffed cheeks, when, head nod, and nose crinkle.

Practice 2

Illustrations © Adrean Clark.

The ASLwrite Community has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to the text and method of written ASL contained on this website and How We Write American Sign Language. In releasing copyright, we ask that written ASL be respected as the domain of the American Sign Language-speaking community and that it be given all the rights and privileges that written English enjoys.

This work is published from the United States.

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