Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same - Set 8

Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same - Set 8

By Brenda Cartwright
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

This article is written by Brenda Cartwright (BC). Brenda is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher and a well known author. BC also contributes numerous blog articles for Signing Savvy. Look for them on the “Articles” tab on our website.

This article is part of our “Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same” series, which highlights signs that look similar, but have different meanings.

The ASL signs shown below look similar, but are not the same. There are many ASL signs that when produced look similar, but in fact have a completely different meaning. Below you will find examples of such signs. Watch closely to see if you can see the differences. In addition, watch my eyebrows, look to see when I tilt my head or lean my body in a certain way, even what my mouth is doing. These nuances are called inflections and trust me, inflections matter.

1. Bathroom vs. Tuesday

These signs look similar because they both use one hand in the T handshape, however, both the palm orientation and movement is different. BATHROOM has the palm facing away from the body and has a shaking motion from side-to-side, while TUESDAY has the palm facing the body and uses a circular motion.

You can remember the difference in motion by thinking about how other days of the week are signed. TUESDAY follows the same circular movement pattern, with the palm towards the body, as the signs for MONDAY, WEDNESDAY, FRIDAY, and SATURDAY.

2. Wonderful vs. Sunday

It’s no wonder WONDERFUL and SUNDAY are often confused - they both use two hands, in the 5 handshape, with the palm facing forward, and start in the same location with your hands held up on either side of your head.

However, you will notice that the motion made when signing these two signs is different. When signing WONDERFUL, your hands make small forward movements, while your hands when signing SUNDAY move from being by your head and then move down.

To remember the difference between these signs, think of giving someone two high fives to congratulate them on how WONDERFUL or great something is when signing WONDERFUL.

If you know how to sign all of the days of the week, you may have always wondered why SUNDAY is signed differently from all of the other days (the signs for the other days of the week incorporate the first letter of the word, or in the case of THURSDAY, the first two letters). Historians as far back as 1885, described the sign for SUNDAY originating from thinking of SUNDAY as a holy day. Some say the two raised, open hands represented the large, opened doors of a church. Others have described the sign as a gesture of praise to God.1 So to remember the sign for SUNDAY, you can think of how church is often on SUNDAY and the motion made is for giving praise or hallelujah.

3. Husband vs. Wife

If you look closely, you will see that HUSBAND is a compound sign, made up of a combination of the signs for MAN and MARRY, and WIFE is a compound sign, made up of the signs for WOMAN and MARRY.

The signs end the same (like how MARRY ends), but start differently, with HUSBAND starting by the forehead (like MAN) and WIFE starting near the chin (like WOMAN).

You can remember which sign is which, if you understand the pattern these signs follow. There are several signs that follow a pattern based on gender. This gender-based pattern in signs was started back when women regularly wore bonnets and men wore tall hats (remember these signs have been around a long time!). The female signs are signed near the chin because it used to symbolize the place where girls would tie the drawstrings for their bonnets. The male signs are signed near the forehead because it used to symbolize where men wore hats and where the brim of their tall hat was.1 HUSBAND (like MAN) and WIFE (like WOMAN) follow this gender pattern, so HUSBAND starts by the forehead and WIFE starts by the chin. Some other signs that also follow this pattern are GIRL / BOY, DAUGHTER / SON, MOM / DAD, GRANDMA / GRANDPA, AUNT / UNCLE, NIECE / NEPHEW, and FEMALE COUSIN / MALE COUSIN.

4. Marriage vs. Hamburger

MARRIAGE and HAMBURGER both use two flat C handshapes in similar locations and with similar palm orientations, however, the movement is different.

Looking at the start of the signs will signal, right away, which sign is being used. MARRIAGE starts with the hands apart, while HAMBURGER starts with the hands together (although, you could argue that HAMBURGER also starts apart before the hands can come together, which only adds to the confusion about these two signs, but the dominant hand starts higher up when signing MARRIAGE).

You can remember the difference between these signs by thinking of forming a HAMBURGER patty with your hands when signing HAMBURGER. The hands start apart and then join together to symbolize coming together in MARRIAGE.

5. Mother vs. Vomit

Poor MOM, let’s not confuse her sign with VOMIT! Although these signs start in the same location, the look on the signer’s face alone, should give you a good clue to which sign they are signing… unless, of course, they are really disgusted with their MOM!

You can remember the difference between these signs because VOMIT has the dominant hand come away from the body much farther, to represent VOMIT coming out from the mouth, while the movement while signing MOM stays much closer to the chin. (Remember why MOM is signed by the chin? If not, read #3 about HUSBAND and WIFE again!)

How can I figure out the difference between signs on my own?

If you see two signs that look close, but not the same, and you’re not sure, you may use Signing Savvy features to help you figure out the difference. All of our signs have sign descriptions and memory aids that members may access. Reading the sign description and memory aids for the signs will help you figure out the small differences between them that your eyes don’t catch at first. We also recommend using the pause and slow motion feature to slow down the video, so you may take a closer look. These features are available to Signing Savvy members.

Take a look, it's in a book!

These examples are aligned with the Visual Discrimination section of Lesson 6 (page 72) from Lessons and Activities in American Sign Language by Brenda E. Cartwright and Suellen J. Bahleda. Check out the book for more ASL Activities and watch for more examples from this series: “Signs That Are Close... But Not the Same.”


  1. Shaw, E. & Delaporte, Y. (2014). A Historical and Etymological Dictionary of American Sign Language. Washington: Gallaudet University Press.

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About the Author

Brenda CartwrightBrenda Cartwright is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, well known presenter, and author of several best selling sign language and interpreting textbooks from the RID Press. For 35 years Brenda was the Chair of the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

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