pointing in bsl

What is pointing in BSL Sign Language?

What is pointing in BSL Sign Language? Contrary to popular belief, pointing is not rude. In fact, it’s part of the language and is used to show various linguistic features. It is used to place people, objects and animals in space and time. Pointing also helps to clarify who or what is being referred to in a conversation. It is also a common handshape which is used in a variety of contexts.

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It’s rude to point!

Most beginners avoid pointing because we are taught from a young age not to point! We perceive it as rude and it takes a long time for learners to understand that pointing is essential in BSL. In fact, if you don’t point when signing, it makes conversations confusing and makes understanding a deaf person really difficult (because they use pointing all the time).

Pointing can be used to place people in the real world or in a ‘fake’ world e.g. showing the difference between the ‘deaf world’ and the ‘hearing world’.

When placing people in the real world, pointing might be used to refer to someone who usually sits in a particular place e.g. in a classroom. If a classmate is missing, you might refer to the space where they usually sit.

You might also point to yourself. For example, when introducing yourself.

Tips for using pointing in BSL correctly:

You need to point with a straight, firm index finger. You can’t make yourself clear if your finger is bent or limp. 

Pointing should not be done too close or too far from the body. The arm is only stretched out when your pointing is for emphasis or to get attention at a distance.

Deaf people don’t mind being pointed at. But if you point at someone who catches you doing it, then you should be prepared to explain why you are pointing at them. In this scenario, pointing is the same as staring at someone across a room.

Pointing is also used to refer to people or things that are not in sight.  By paying close attention to the pointing movement, including the signer’s use of eye gaze, you will learn to recognise the way pointing works in BSL.

As you increase your understanding of BSL, you become aware of how complex sign language is. For example, you learn that pointing is also associated with eye gaze and linguistic facial expressions. You can also create different signs depending on the orientation of the handshape. For example, you could point in front of you to show where someone was sitting or you can point upwards for the sign ‘boss’ or ‘manager’.


The pointing handshape (G) can also be used to represent long thin objects such as a pencil or to show an action such as prodding or poking someone. Handshapes can be associated with specific categories. These are known as classifiers (that represent how an object is used, size, shape and appearance).


An example of a classifier using the index finger handshape can show individuals moving towards each other or past each other.

Many learners find it difficult to use all parts of their body at the same time. The best advice is to watch deaf people when they sign to each other. Deaf people point in formal (work) and informal (social) situations. The key for you, as a learner, is to forget hearing world behaviours so you can be a competent signer.

Other BSL resources:

For paper based resources on handshapes, you can visit Twinkl

For video based resource on handshapes, visit commanding hands

Related articles:

7 tips to improve fingerspelling

How do you ask questions in BSL?

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