Captions vs. Subtitles: Do You Know the Difference?

August 26, 2021 BY KELLY MAHONEY

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, the two are not synonymous. They differ from each other in definition and purpose – captions are designed for viewers who cannot hear the audio in a video, while subtitles are designed for viewers who can hear, but do not understand the language being spoken in the video.



What are captions?


Captions: what are they? Captions identify speakers, move when obscuring important visual elements, capture non-speech elements, and are required by USA laws for most video content.

In the early 1970s, captions were introduced to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing viewers watching TV – by the 1980’s, they became a mandated requirement for broadcast television in the United States.
Initially, captions could not be turned off and were part of the video itself (referred to as open captions). Soon after, however, closed captions were developed that allowed viewers to control whether captions were turned on or off. Today, both open and closed captioning are widely available across movie theaters, cable networks, personal devices, streaming services, and most Internet-based video players like YouTube, Vimeo, and Brightcove.

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Whether open or closed, captions differ from subtitles in that they’re designed to ensure that the viewer can understand all essential audio in a video – which may include more than just the spoken audio. Non-speech sounds that are necessary to a viewer’s understanding should be included in proper captioning and are normally shown in brackets, such as in these examples.

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

 Check out the Beginner’s Guide to Captioning ➡️ 


What are subtitles?


Subtitles: what are they? Subtitles translate the audio into other languages, do not include non-speech elements, and are synchronized with media. In the UK and other countries, subtitles refers to captions as well.


Subtitles were introduced in the 1930s, when silent film transitioned to film with spoken audio in order to accommodate foreign audiences who didn’t understand the language used in a film. Light bulb with sparkles

Still today, the primary purpose of subtitling is to translate spoken audio into a language the viewer will understand. In most cases, subtitles are not an appropriate accommodation for deaf or hard of hearing viewers because they don’t include the aforementioned non-speech sounds that provide a comprehensive, equitable viewing experience for people who cannot hear audio.


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

Quick Start: A Beginner's Guide to Captioning. Download the white paper.

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