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Sign vs. Symbol: Know the Difference

Shumaila Saeed
By Shumaila Saeed || Published on January 10, 2024
A sign is a literal or direct representation with a specific meaning, often used for communication or instruction, while a symbol is an abstract representation that holds deeper, often cultural or ideological, significance.
Sign vs. Symbol

Key Differences

A sign is a straightforward representation, conveying clear, specific information or instructions, like a stop sign. A symbol, however, represents an idea, concept, or other complex elements, like a dove symbolizing peace.
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Signs are often universally understood and used for practical purposes, such as road signs for safety. Symbols carry varied interpretations, influenced by cultural or personal context, like a national flag symbolizing patriotism.
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In communication, signs are direct and unambiguous, serving a functional role. Symbols are open to interpretation, often evoking emotions or ideas, such as a heart symbolizing love.
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Signs are typically physical or visual cues, like exit signs in buildings. Symbols can be both tangible, like a wedding ring, or intangible, represented in literature or art.
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The use of signs is often regulated and standardized, such as in traffic control. Symbols, on the other hand, evolve over time and can gain or change meaning based on societal shifts, like the evolution of religious symbols.
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Comparison Chart

Representation

Literal and direct
Abstract and indirect
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Purpose

Communication and instruction
Representing deeper meanings or concepts
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Interpretation

Generally universal and specific
Subjective, influenced by culture or context
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Form

Often physical or visual
Can be tangible or intangible
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Sign and Symbol Definitions

Sign

An indication of a disease or medical condition.
A high fever can be a sign of infection.
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Symbol

A mark or character used as a conventional representation of an object, function, or process.
The letter x is often used as a symbol for an unknown quantity in mathematics.
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Sign

Something that suggests the presence or existence of a fact, condition, or quality
A high temperature is a sign of fever.
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Symbol

Something used to represent or stand for a group or belief system.
The red cross is a symbol of medical aid and relief.
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Sign

An act or gesture used to convey an idea, a desire, information, or a command
Gave the go-ahead sign.
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Symbol

A character used in writing to represent a sound, word, or idea.
Chinese characters are symbols that represent words or concepts.
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Sign

Sign language.
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Symbol

A literary device that uses an object or action to mean something more than its literal meaning.
In literature, a journey is often a symbol for personal growth and discovery.
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Sign

A displayed structure bearing lettering or symbols, used to identify or advertise a place of business
A motel with a flashing neon sign outside.
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Symbol

Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible
The lamb is a symbol of innocence.
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Sign

A posted notice bearing a designation, direction, or command
An EXIT sign above a door.
A traffic sign.
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Symbol

An instance that typifies a broader pattern or situation
His striking out to end the rally was a symbol of everything that had gone wrong with the team over the past month.
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Sign

A conventional figure or device that stands for a word, phrase, or operation; a symbol, as in mathematics or in musical notation.
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Symbol

A printed or written sign used to represent an operation, element, quantity, quality, or relation, as in mathematics or music.
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Sign

Pl. sign An indicator, such as a dropping or footprint, of the trail of an animal
Looking for deer sign.
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Symbol

(Psychology) An object or image that an individual unconsciously uses to represent repressed thoughts, feelings, or impulses
A phallic symbol.
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Sign

A trace or vestige
No sign of life.
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Symbol

A character or glyph representing an idea, concept or object.
$ is the symbol for dollars in the US and some other countries.
Chinese people use word symbols for writing.
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Sign

A portentous incident or event; a presage
Took the eclipse as a sign from God.
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Symbol

A thing considered the embodiment of a concept or object.
The lion is the symbol of courage; the lamb is the symbol of meekness or patience.
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Sign

(Medicine) An objective finding, usually detected on physical examination, from a laboratory test, or on an x-ray, that indicates the presence of abnormality or disease.
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Symbol

(linguistics) A type of noun whereby the form refers to the same entity independently of the context; a symbol arbitrarily denotes a referent. See also icon and index.
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Sign

One of the 12 divisions of the zodiac, each named for a constellation and represented by a symbol.
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Symbol

A summary of a dogmatic statement of faith.
The Apostles, Nicene Creed and the confessional books of Protestantism, such as the Augsburg Confession of Lutheranism are considered symbols.
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Sign

To affix one's signature to
Signed the letter.
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Symbol

(crystallography) The numerical expression which defines a plane's position relative to the assumed axes.
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Sign

To write (one's signature)
Signed her name to the contract.
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Symbol

(obsolete) That which is thrown into a common fund; hence, an appointed or accustomed duty.
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Sign

To approve or ratify (a document) by affixing a signature, seal, or other mark
Sign a bill into law.
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Symbol

(obsolete) Share; allotment.
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Sign

To hire or engage by obtaining a signature on a contract
Signed a rookie pitcher for next season.
Sign up actors for a tour.
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Symbol

(programming) An internal identifier used by a debugger to relate parts of the compiled program to the corresponding names in the source code.
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Sign

To relinquish or transfer title to by signature
Signed away all her claims to the estate.
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Symbol

(telecommunications) A signalling event on a communications channel; a signal that cannot be further divided into meaningful information.
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Sign

To provide with a sign or signs
Sign a new highway.
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Symbol

To symbolize.
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Sign

To communicate with a sign or signs
Signed his approval with a nod.
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Symbol

A visible sign or representation of an idea; anything which suggests an idea or quality, or another thing, as by resemblance or by convention; an emblem; a representation; a type; a figure; as, the lion is the symbol of courage; the lamb is the symbol of meekness or patience.
A symbol is a sign included in the idea which it represents, e. g., an actual part chosen to represent the whole, or a lower form or species used as the representative of a higher in the same kind.
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Sign

To express (a word or thought, for example) in a sign language
Signed her reply to the question.
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Symbol

Any character used to represent a quantity, an operation, a relation, or an abbreviation.
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Sign

To consecrate with the sign of the cross.
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Symbol

An abstract or compendium of faith or doctrine; a creed, or a summary of the articles of religion.
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Sign

To make a sign or signs; signal.
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Symbol

That which is thrown into a common fund; hence, an appointed or accustomed duty.
They do their work in the days of peace . . . and come to pay their symbol in a war or in a plague.
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Sign

To communicate in a sign language.
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Symbol

Share; allotment.
The persons who are to be judged . . . shall all appear to receive their symbol.
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Sign

To write one's signature.
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Symbol

An abbreviation standing for the name of an element and consisting of the initial letter of the Latin or New Latin name, or sometimes of the initial letter with a following one; as, C for carbon, Na for sodium (Natrium), Fe for iron (Ferrum), Sn for tin (Stannum), Sb for antimony (Stibium), etc. See the list of names and symbols under Element.
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Sign

A perceptible (e.g. visible) indication.
Their angry expressions were a clear sign they didn't want to talk.
Those clouds show signs of raining soon.
Those clouds show little sign of raining soon.
Signs of disease are objective, whereas symptoms are subjective.
The sharp sign indicates that the pitch of the note is raised a half step.
I gave them a thumbs-up sign.
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Symbol

To symbolize.
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Sign

Physical evidence left by an animal.
The hunters found deer sign at the end of the trail.
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Symbol

An arbitrary sign (written or printed) that has acquired a conventional significance
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Sign

A clearly visible object, generally flat, bearing a short message in words or pictures.
The sign in the window advertised a room for rent.
I missed the sign at the corner so I took the wrong turn.
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Symbol

Something visible that by association or convention represents something else that is invisible;
The eagle is a symbol of the United States
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Sign

A wonder; miracle; prodigy.
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Symbol

An object or image that represents an abstract idea or concept.
The dove is a universal symbol of peace.
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Sign

(astrology) An astrological sign.
Your sign is Taurus? That's no surprise.
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Sign

(mathematics) Positive or negative polarity, as denoted by the + or - sign.
I got the magnitude right, but the sign was wrong.
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Sign

A specific gesture or motion used to communicate by those with speaking or hearing difficulties; now specifically, a linguistic unit in sign language equivalent to word in spoken languages.
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Sign

(uncountable) Sign language in general.
Sorry, I don't know sign very well.
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Sign

A semantic unit, something that conveys meaning or information (e.g. a word of written language); a unit consisting of a signifier and a signified concept. sign (semiotics)]].
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Sign

An omen.
"It's a sign of the end of the world," the doom prophet said.
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Sign

(medicine) A property of the body that indicates a disease and, unlike a symptom, can be detected objectively by someone other than the patient.
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Sign

A military emblem carried on a banner or standard.
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Sign

To make a mark
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Sign

To seal (a document etc.) with an identifying seal or symbol.
The Queen signed her letter with the regal signet.
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Sign

(transitive) To mark, to put or leave a mark on.
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Sign

(transitive) To validate or ratify (a document) by writing one's signature on it.
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Sign

(transitive) More generally, to write one's signature on (something) as a means of identification etc.
I forgot to sign that letter to my aunt.
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Sign

To write (one's name) as a signature.
Just sign your name at the bottom there.
I received a letter from some woman who signs herself ‘Mrs Trellis’.
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Sign

(intransitive) To write one's signature.
Please sign on the dotted line.
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Sign

(intransitive) To finalise a contractual agreement to work for a given sports team, record label etc.
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Sign

(transitive) To engage (a sports player, musician etc.) in a contract.
It was a great month. I managed to sign three major players.
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Sign

To make the sign of the cross
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Sign

(transitive) To bless (someone or something) with the sign of the cross; to mark with the sign of the cross.
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Sign

(reflexive) To cross oneself.
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Sign

To indicate
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Sign

(intransitive) To communicate using a gesture or signal.
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Sign

(transitive) To communicate or make known (a meaning, intention, etc.) by a sign.
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Sign

(transitive) To communicate using gestures to (someone).
He signed me that I should follow him through the doorway.
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Sign

(intransitive) To use sign language.
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Sign

(transitive) To furnish (a road etc.) with signs.
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Sign

To determine the sign of
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Sign

(transitive) To calculate or derive whether a quantity has a positive or negative sign.
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Sign

That by which anything is made known or represented; that which furnishes evidence; a mark; a token; an indication; a proof.
Through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God.
It shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign.
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Sign

Something serving to indicate the existence, or preserve the memory, of a thing; a token; a memorial; a monument.
What time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men, and they became a sign.
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Sign

Any symbol or emblem which prefigures, typifles, or represents, an idea; a type; hence, sometimes, a picture.
The holy symbols, or signs, are not barely significative; but what they represent is as certainly delivered to us as the symbols themselves.
Saint George of Merry England, the sign of victory.
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Sign

A word or a character regarded as the outward manifestation of thought; as, words are the sign of ideas.
They made signs to his father, how he would have him called.
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Sign

Hence, one of the gestures of pantomime, or of a language of a signs such as those used by the North American Indians, or those used by the deaf and dumb.
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Sign

A military emblem carried on a banner or a standard.
The shops were, therefore, distinguished by painted signs, which gave a gay and grotesque aspect to the streets.
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Sign

The twelfth part of the ecliptic or zodiac.
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Sign

A character indicating the relation of quantities, or an operation performed upon them; as, the sign + (plus); the sign - (minus); the sign of division ÷, and the like.
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Sign

Any character, as a flat, sharp, dot, etc.
An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
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Sign

To represent by a sign; to make known in a typical or emblematic manner, in distinction from speech; to signify.
I signed to Browne to make his retreat.
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Sign

To make a sign upon; to mark with a sign.
We receive this child into the congregation of Christ's flock, and do sign him with the sign of the cross.
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Sign

To affix a signature to; to ratify by hand or seal; to subscribe in one's own handwriting.
Inquire the Jew's house out, give him this deed,And let him sign it.
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Sign

To assign or convey formally; - used with away.
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Sign

To mark; to make distinguishable.
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Sign

To be a sign or omen.
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Sign

To make a sign or signal; to communicate directions or intelligence by signs.
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Sign

To write one's name, esp. as a token of assent, responsibility, or obligation.
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Sign

A perceptible indication of something not immediately apparent (as a visible clue that something has happened);
He showed signs of strain
They welcomed the signs of spring
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Sign

A public display of a (usually written) message;
He posted signs in all the shop windows
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Sign

Any communication that encodes a message;
Signals from the boat suddenly stopped
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Sign

Structure displaying a board on which advertisements can be posted;
The highway was lined with signboards
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Sign

(astrology) one of 12 equal areas into which the zodiac is divided
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Sign

(medicine) any objective evidence of the presence of a disorder or disease;
There were no signs of asphixiation
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Sign

Having an indicated pole (as the distinction between positive and negative electric charges);
He got the polarity of the battery reversed
Charges of opposite sign
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Sign

An event that is experienced as indicating important things to come;
He hoped it was an augury
It was a sign from God
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Sign

A gesture that is part of a sign language
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Sign

A fundamental linguistic unit linking a signifier to that which is signified;
The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary
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Sign

A character indicating a relation between quantities;
Don't forget the minus sign
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Sign

Mark with one's signature; write one's name (on);
She signed the letter and sent it off
Please sign here
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Sign

Approve and express assent, responsibility, or obligation;
All parties ratified the peace treaty
Have you signed your contract yet?
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Sign

Be engaged by a written agreement;
He signed to play the casino on Dec. 18
The soprano signed to sing the new opera
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Sign

Engage by written agreement;
They signed two new pitchers for the next season
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Sign

Communicate silently and non-verbally by signals or signs;
He signed his disapproval with a dismissive hand gesture
The diner signaled the waiters to bring the menu
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Sign

Place signs, as along a road;
Sign an intersection
This road has been signed
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Sign

Communicate in sign language;
I don't know how to sign, so I could not communicate with my deaf cousin
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Sign

Make the sign of the cross over someone in order to call on God for protection; consecrate
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Sign

Used of the language of the deaf
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Sign

An object, quality, or event indicating a fact or situation.
The smoke was a sign of a distant fire.
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Sign

A gesture or action used to convey information or instruction.
The teacher's hand sign indicated the students should be quiet.
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Sign

A posted notice conveying information or instructions.
The Wet Floor sign warned of potential slipping hazards.
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Sign

A symbol or emblem used by a business to represent its brand.
The golden arches are a recognizable sign of McDonald's.
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Repeatedly Asked Queries

Are traffic signs considered symbols?

They are more signs than symbols, as they convey specific instructions.
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Do symbols have to be tangible?

No, symbols can be intangible, like gestures or actions.
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Can a sign also be a symbol?

Yes, some signs can also function as symbols with deeper meanings.
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Can symbols vary in meaning across cultures?

Yes, symbols often have different interpretations in different cultures.
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Can a color be a symbol?

Absolutely, colors often carry symbolic meanings, like red symbolizing love or danger.
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Are emojis considered signs or symbols?

They are more like symbols, representing emotions or objects abstractly.
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Is a hand gesture a sign or a symbol?

It can be both, depending on its use and cultural context.
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Are mathematical symbols considered signs?

Yes, they are signs representing specific mathematical concepts or operations.
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Is a logo a sign or a symbol?

A logo can be both, serving as a sign for identification and a symbol of brand values.
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Can a sign be universal?

Some signs, like a stop sign, are almost universal in their understanding.
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Is a flag more of a sign or a symbol?

A flag is primarily a symbol, representing a country or organization.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Are religious icons considered signs or symbols?

They are generally symbols, representing deeper religious meanings.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Do signs always have text?

Not necessarily; some signs use images or symbols to convey their message.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Are national emblems signs or symbols?

They are symbols, often embodying national identity and values.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Can symbols evolve over time?

Yes, the meanings of symbols can change and evolve with culture and time.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Can a word be a symbol?

Yes, words can symbolize ideas or concepts beyond their literal meaning.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Is a warning sign a symbol?

It's more of a sign, providing direct cautionary information.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Are animal representations typically signs or symbols?

They are often symbols, representing traits or ideas associated with the animal.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Can a person be a symbol?

Yes, a person can symbolize certain ideals or concepts.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

Can music notes be considered symbols?

Yes, as they symbolize musical sounds and instructions.
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed
Jan 10, 2024

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About Author
Shumaila Saeed
Written by
Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed, an expert content creator with 6 years of experience, specializes in distilling complex topics into easily digestible comparisons, shining a light on the nuances that both inform and educate readers with clarity and accuracy.

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