Captions vs. Subtitles: Do You Know the Difference?

Updated: June 3, 2019
When referring to words that appear on the screen of a video, many people tend to use the terms “Captions” and “Subtitles” interchangeably.
But, contrary to popular belief, they are not synonymous. They are, in fact, very different from each other in definition and purpose.
Captions are designed for viewers who cannot hear the audio in the video. Subtitles are designed for viewers who can hear but do not understand the language in the video.

captions assume the viewer cannot hear. Subtitles assume the viewer doesn't understand the language.

What are captions?

A GIF of a puppy trying to bark. The text on screen is between brackets and says: Cute attempts to bark angrily.

In the early 1970’s, captions were introduced to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing viewers watching TV. In the 1980’s, they became an mandate for broadcast television in the US.

The first captions could not be turned off (open captions) and were part of the video itself. Soon after, closed captions were developed, allowing viewers to turn the caption feature on and off. Today, both closed and open captioning are widely available in many forms across movie theaters, cable networks, devices, live streaming services, and most internet video players like YouTube, Vimeo, and Brightcove.

Captions, both open and closed, are different from subtitles in that they are designed to ensure the viewer can understand all of the essential audio in the video — not just the spoken audio. Non-speech sounds that are necessary to the understanding of the video are also a critical element of proper captioning and are normally shown in brackets (as in the above example of the puppy attempting to bark angrily).

In the United States, and in many other parts of the world, federal laws require captioning for video content across a number of industries.

What are subtitles?

a screen shot of Chance the dog from the movie Homeward Bound. The subtitles on screen are in Spanish. They say: Esta bien. Los gatos mandan y los perros babean.

Subtitles have been around since the 1930’s when silent film transitioned into film with spoken audio.

To accommodate foreign audiences who did not understand the language used in the film, this required text on screen that translated the spoken audio.

The above screenshot shows an example of Spanish subtitles from the movie Homeward Bound. In the film’s audio, Chance (voiced in English by Michael J. Fox) is saying, “Okay. Cats rule and dogs drool.”

The main purpose of subtitling is to translate spoken audio into the viewer’s language. In most cases, subtitles are not an appropriate accommodation for deaf and hard of hearing viewers because they do not include non-speech sounds that provide an equivalent viewing experience for people who cannot hear.

Want to learn more about captions and subtitles? Download the free Beginner’s Guide to Captioning!

download the beginner's guide to captioning

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