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American Sign Language: "how"

The sign for "how" has a couple of popular variations.

How:  Version 1: 
Form curved handshapes on both hands, palms down and/or slightly back. Place your hands together with the knuckles touching. (Looks kind of like McDonalds' Golden Arches.)  Roll the hands forward until the "arches" are upside down--ending with your hands palm-up in "cupping" handshapes. When asking how something was done or how something happened you should furrow your eyebrows.  (The question "How are you?" when used as a greeting is an exception to the rule and uses raised eyebrows.")

HOW (version)

As in: "How did you do that?" or "How did that happen?" [Use furrowed eyebrows.]


Note: For the sign "how," some people just roll one hand forward.

HOW (version)



Sandy:  How do you sign, "Hello, how are you?"


Dr. Bill: You wave hello, (using the standard gesture), then you sign "HOW YOU?" The sign HOW uses two modified "c" hands (thumbs alongside) touches them at the knuckles and rolls them forward till the palms are up. To sign "YOU," just point at the other person.

Sandy: It's a little awkward at first, isn't it?

Dr. Bill: At first yes, practice makes it easier :)

Sample Phrase:  "How are you?"  [Raise your eyebrows a bit or at least use a friendly expression.]

Note: The phrase "How are you?" when used as a greeting is an exception to the normal lowering of the eyebrows for "Wh-type" questions (like WHO, WHAT, WHEN, HOW-MANY).

Note: If you are visiting a sick friend and you seriously want to know "how" he or she is doing then it is appropriate to use lowered / furrowed eyebrows to ask "How are you?" -- since you are seeking an extended answer that goes beyond "yes," "no," or "fine."
So remember:
"How are you?" (eyebrows up) equals a friendly greeting.
"How are you?" (eyebrows down) equals a serious inquiry.


Note:  Many English phrases include the word "how" but these phrases might not be signed using the "HOW" sign. Instead you should use signs that convey the specific meaning you are trying to express.  For example the question "How much?"

The sign for "how much" doesn't use the sign "HOW."  It is a different sign altogether.  "HOW-MUCH" uses a wh-question expression (furrow your eyebrows).  It generally means "how much" as in "How much does that cost?"

HOW-MUCH (cost)


For more on the concept of "how much" visit: "how-much"

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In a message dated 7/16/2003 1:23:17 AM Central Daylight Time, writes:

I can't find a good explanation for when it's appropriate to sign "how" twice. Rhetorical questions only? But I've seen it done in other situations not rhetorical.
Any help appreciated.
Scott Mather


Hi Scott,

There is a variation of HOW that rolls one hand forward twice.  Let's discuss this:

When compounds are made in ASL, internal movement or the repetition of movement is eliminated.
I see the single movement in circumstances where the concept of "how" is an integrated part of another concept:

Example: How are you? (common phrase)
Example: HOW-MUCH (HOW + "a lot" referring to volume)
Example: HOW-MANY (you actually drop the sign for HOW and just keep the furrowed eyebrow expression!)

I see the double movement used for rhetoricals and for one-word questions.
Example of a rhetorical: She passed her class! How? Paid the teacher.

Example of a one word question:
Signer B:  HOW?!?  (double movement)

--Dr. Bill

All material copyright 1996 by Dr. William Vicars