Step Three: A Map of Movement Marks

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What Are Movement Marks?

It is important to understand that the primary space that you use on paper is also the signing space that is right in front of you. When you sign, there are imaginary boundaries that you keep your words within so that other people can easily listen to you. If you cross the boundaries the other person has to work harder to track your words with their eyes. This imaginary “cube” is called neutral space.

Illustration of a figure with neutral space

Neutral Space

Neutral space is where you sign/write ASL words that do not contact your body. The imaginary cube of neutral space becomes a square on paper.

Illustration of Neutral Space from 3D to 2D

How neutral space changes from live 3-D to 2-D on paper. The ASL word is “go ahead.”

Movement marks are the “arrows” that show how handshapes move around in neutral space. They help visualize the movement of the ASL word by mirroring your movement. Do not write in neutral space as if you are watching someone else! You are expressing ASL on paper from your perspective.

ASL word "go ahead" illustration

The ASL word “go ahead” from first person perspective and as written.

The Parts Of A Movement Mark

A basic movement mark consists of a motion line and an endpoint.

Movement Mark

A movement mark.

Motion lines follow the movement of the handshape in neutral space.

Motion Line

Motion Line

An endpoint stops the motion line.



Those two parts also create the two categories of movement marks — line and point.

Following The Lines

There are two types of motion lines: cardinal and morphing.

Cardinal motion lines follow set “paths.” They are consistent in their placement and align on a vertical and horizontal axis. The five types of cardinal motion lines are directional, random, expanding, and contracting.

Directional motion lines are consistent lines in a set “path” or direction. Those lines are written horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, and translate to movement that is done forward, backward, to the left or to the right. They are the most heavily used when writing in ASL.

illustration of horizontal directional lines

Horizontal Directional Lines

Adding a vertical mark changes the direction of motion lines to an up and down axis. It is a short “T” at the beginning of a motion line.

illustration of vertical directional lines

Vertical Directional Lines
(directional lines with a vertical mark)

Several motion lines can be combined to create a new “pattern.”

Combined Directional Marks

Combined Directional Marks

They also don’t have to be straight lines. Circular and zigzag lines are commonly written as well.

Circular and Zigzag Directional Motion Lines

Circular and Zigzag Directional Motion Lines

Here are a few examples of ASL words that use directional lines.

Go-Ahead Indianapolis Continue Library Copy in written ASL

Examples of ASL words that use directional movement marks.

Sometimes the left and right hands take turns while moving. Alternating marks show the turn-taking. It is put on the first motion line and always faces the interior of the ASL word.

Alternating mark and written ASL Maybe

Alternating mark with an example ASL word.

Random motion lines are the motion lines that do not have a set path. They work best when used with appropriate unusual or creative ASL words.

Random Motion Lines with ASL

Random motion lines with an example ASL description.

When handshapes contact each other and then move apart, the expanding motion line documents their movement. It looks like a single line with two endpoints. By default the expanding motion line is horizontal. To change to an up-and-down axis, add a vertical mark in the center.

Expanding motion line and ASL word "story"

Expanding motion lines with an example ASL word.

The opposite of an expanding motion line is a contracting motion line. The two motion lines converge to a center with a single point.

Contracting motion line with example ASL word

Contracting motion line with example ASL word

The second category of motion lines consist of morphing lines. Those lines do not show direction, rather, they assist with the changing of a handshape during an ASL word. The path taken during that change may or may not be directional, depending on the context.

Morphing lines with ASL example word, eleven.

Morphing lines with a written ASL example.

For some ASL words, it is important to show that the wrist stays stationary while its shape morphs. A nail mark helps in those special situations.

Nail marks with example ASL word, eleven.

Nail marks with example ASL word.

Counting The Points

There are five types of points: endpoint, firmpoint, contact point, orbit mark, and crank mark.

Endpoints contain information on how many times the motion is done, and whether it is done normally or with an emphasis. A basic endpoint is a single dot.

One endpoint means that the movement is done once. Two endpoints equals two movements. Three endpoints is the maximum used, as it means that the motion is repetitive.


Endpoints (One, two, and repetitive)

A firmpoint uses a dash instead of a dot. A motion line that ends in a firmpoint is a movement that has emphasis added to it.



There is a difference between a word that uses an endpoint compared to a word that uses a firmpoint.

Comparison of endpoint vs. firmpoint

Endpoint vs. Firmpoint

It is possible to have an endpoint without a motion line. When that happens it becomes a contact point.

Example of contact points.

Example of contact points.

Contact points do not always have to be on a digit. It can be placed on empty space, to suggest contacting an imaginary surface in the air.

Written ASL word "click."

Contact point anchored to “air.”

Those contact points can be combined with motion lines to create serial contact points.

Written ASL word "to put (in sequence)"

Example of a word using serial contact points.

An orbit mark is an expanded contact point. The small circle is a central point where handshapes “orbit” around it.

Orbit mark and written ASL example.

Orbit mark and written ASL example.

Sometimes the orbiting path of handshapes is cut into half, whether vertical or horizontal. For those rare words, the orbit mark has a line written across it. It is also called a steering mark.

Steering marks

Steering marks

For a different sort of orbit that has handshapes moving parallel to each other, the crank mark clarifies their movement.

Crank mark with example ASL word.

Crank mark with example ASL word.


Add movement marks to the following index digits:

Movement Line Practice

Next Step: Locatives

Answer Key:

Answer key to practice

Handshape photographs © Julia Dameron and Erik Call.

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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