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Captions vs Subtitles: Surprising Differences 2024

Daniel Chang
Daniel Chang
Posted in Zoom Sep 5 · 7 Sep, 2022
Captions vs Subtitles: Surprising Differences 2024

The most common misconception about captions vs subtitles is they are one and the same, captions being another term for subtitles or vice versa. But that is not actually the case. Sure, they both appear at the bottom part of any screen, from YouTube to a number of streaming services, to represent the actors’ speech and conversations on your TV or phone, but that’s about the similarities between them. 

Another thing that might confuse some is even the streaming giant Netflix groups both caption and subtitle under one heading.

Although both captions and subtitles offer accessibility to the many hard of hearing and deaf people to people who speak a different language, both captions and subtitles have other goals to achieve by providing this accessibility. 

If you are a foreign movie fanatic or a hard-of-hearing person who wants to experience the entire movie, it’s essential to know captions vs subtitles. So, what are their differences, and why is it important to know them? 

Captions vs Subtitles: An Overview

The main difference between captions vs subtitles is that captions are made particularly so that the hard of hearing and deaf individuals can experience the entire movie from the background noises, characters’ groans or snickers, speaker differentiation, songs, and many other information relevant to the picture. It transcribes everything that cannot be heard by the person watching the movie. 

On the other hand, subtitles are made with the assumption that the person who will be using them can hear but speaks and understands a language different from the one being spoken to in the picture. If you are fond of watching a foreign movie, the English transcription available for you is called subtitles. 

Another distinguishing difference between captions vs subtitles is that captions come in two forms. You can have open or closed captions depending on what is available for the movie you are watching. 

So, essentially, the most distinct difference between captions vs subtitles is that captions are made so that the film can have broader accessibility to the many hard of hearing persons, while subtitles are there to make the movie available for anyone around the world who speaks a different language than the movie. 

captions vs subtitles


When we talk about captions vs subtitles, the most distinct keyword you need to remember when it comes to captions is, unlike subtitles, captions transcribe the language of the medium rather than simply translating it into other languages.

There are instances where laughs, sighs, or when a thud from a falling objects will be included in the captions to give anyone hard-of-hearing to be fully immersed in the story and the film even though no sounds will be heard. 

Captions can be closed or open. Making sure that you have one over the other will account for whether you want the choice to switch the captions on or off. 

Closed Captions

The main advantage of closed captions over open captions is it gives the viewer the option of switching the captions on or off as they watch the captioned video or film. Closed captioning is also the most common type of captioning and will usually be signified by the [CC] sign or symbol on any web player from Netflix to Hulu to YouTube. 

One can only access closed captions if the media player supports it, so not every video or film on the internet will have closed captioning available. 

Where do you use them? 

Closed captions are currently used in every media platform possible. What we think of subtitles on many television shows or DVDs (remember CDs?) are actually closed captions generally. 

Closed captions are more widely available now since we are becoming more aware that access to these media for education and entertainment should be available for absolutely everyone, so most media sites like Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and many other video uploading and sharing platforms. 

Streaming platforms like Netflix are one of the most successful in this area in providing closed captioning to almost all the movies and television shows available on their platform. 

Advantages of Closed Captioning

The main advantage of closed captions over open captions is that any viewer can turn them on and off for their reasons. They are also highly editable, and changes can be made to them. 

With the ease of edit comes the flexibility to make closed captions in different formats, making it suitable for a number of media players that are used across many video streaming and sharing platforms on the internet. 

Limitations of Closed Captioning 

If there are advantages to closed captioning, there will also be the other side of the coin, which will posit its drawbacks. 

The main limitation of closed captioning is that not all media players will back closed caption files. Aside from that, closed captions will also give the responsibility to the viewer to figure out how to switch the captions on or off. 

Open Captions

There are many words that are used to name open captions. Sometimes it is known as hard-coded captions, burned-in, or baked-on, and it is because they can be seen by generally everyone who watches the video. Open captions are fixtures of the movie or the video itself, so it will be impossible to be able to switch them on and off on your whim. 

Open captions are generally seen on website videos that don’t allow closed captions to function on their sites. 

Where do you use them? 

Other than video introductions or ads played on countless websites on the internet, and you can also find open captions on movies being played in the cinemas for scheduled screenings for the hard of hearing and the deaf community. 

Cinemas do not usually offer caption displays for closed captions for regularly scheduled programming. This will mean that in order to be accessible to the deaf and the hard of hearing community, a movie will have an open caption option as it is on the film itself. 

Advantages of Open Captioning

Transcriptionists or caption producers can easily style captions in a creative or specific manner. This will mean that they will be able to edit everything from font size to font color, even the font background, to make it more legible and readable for all people who will be reading them. 

Another significant advantage of open captions is that they would not need any other particular function addition to be able to be played across any form of video sharing or streaming platform. 

Since they are permanently on display on any video that will have them, there will be no need to keep track of any additional files for your caption. 

Limitations of Open Captioning

The drawback for open captions is what makes closed captions a choice for other people, and that is the inability of open captions to be disabled in a video since they are embedded with the video. This might cause abled people to be distracted while watching the film or video.

Another limitation is that the ease of open captions to be read will depend on the video quality of the film or any picture media you are watching. If the video is poor quality and blurry, it will affect the captions, too, which will be harder to read because of the blurriness. 

ADA-Compliant Video Captioning Tips

To ensure that your captions will be accessible and flexible to everyone, especially to the deaf and the hard of hearing community, one needs to ensure that their open captions meet the ADA compliance guidelines on captioning, and here they are. 

  • Ensure that only one to a maximum of three lines are displayed on the screen at a specific time of three to seven seconds, and then after that, they should easily be replaced by another set of caption
  • Ensure that each caption is time-synced with the audio and the video
  • Ensure that the caption covers up no crucial graphics and visual elements of the video 
  • The captions should be typed both in lower and uppercase letters and not just in all caps
  • Be mindful of the font with Helvetica medium as the most recommended one 
  • Make sure that the characters per caption line will not exceed 32 letters
  • If verbatim is not possible with the time, captions must capture the essence of each sentence and words as close as possible
  • Captions should be available so that they are accessible if anyone needs them
  • Add descriptions inside square brackets for emphasis e.g., [groan] or [music]
  • Time caption to make sure that it is not so fast that it becomes hard to read
  • Suppose more than one or two characters are speaking on screen at a time. In that case, it is essential to ensure that each caption of their lines is easily identifiable. Add Speaker 1 or Speaker 2 or the character names to the caption before their dialogues
  • Punctuations are advised to emphasize feelings and signify every pause
  • Spelling should be correct throughout the film or video 
  • Only write sound effects if they are relevant to the story and understanding 
  • Use of any accent or slang should be preserved and identified
  • For heavily emphasized words with or without meaning to the film, italics should be utilized


Now that the captions part of captions vs subtitles are dealt with let’s move on to subtitles. In essence, subtitles are translations. They are for people who don’t speak the language that the video medium is using so that they can understand what the film or video is trying to convey. 

Subtitles assume that their viewer can hear the sound, meaning that they are not deaf or a part of the hard of hearing community. In captions vs subtitles, captions are more verbatim to the script than subtitles. You can think of subtitles as essentially dialogue translations of what is said in the film or video. 

captions vs subtitles

Where do you use them? 

Subtitles are mainly used so that people can understand any foreign film they are watching in their native language. Reading subtitles have also been proven as an effective tool for learning a foreign language as long as they match the learners’ level of proficiency since it can improve their comprehension skills in that particular language. 

Advantages of Adding Subtitles

Since they are less detailed than closed or open captions, subtitles have the benefit of being relatively cheaper than captioning. Another great use of subtitles is making content accessible to more people worldwide because of its translation and localization. 

Limitations of Subtitles

A limitation of subtitles is they are not there to be as accurate in any translation as they can be. The meaning will be the same, but there will be differences between the direct translation and the localized language of the film itself. 

Subtitles need to be adjusted so that they can be easily understood by the person reading the translation as they watch the film. 

What to use for your film captions vs subtitles? 

What you want to utilize for your film will depend on many factors, such as the kind of platform you are using, how technology-savvy your audiences are, and how much work you are willing to give to make sure that your content will be inclusive to everyone, the hard of hearing or not. 

If you want your film to be flexible and accessible so that more people can enjoy your content, the best transcription option, captions vs subtitles, is going for captions. Both of the two, closed or open, will work, and it will ensure that your message can not reach people worldwide but also empower all the hard of hearing audience in the world. 

captions vs subtitles

How To Use Captions vs Subtitles Efficiently

Now that you have decided on captions vs subtitles, there are practices and formatting you need to ensure you consider to make this accessibility efficient and valuable for everyone. Here are they:

  • Limit subtitles and captions are shown on the screen from one to two lines maximum
  • Limit each line’s characters (letters, not words) to about 32 words
  • Make sure that each text block is visible on the screen for 3 to 7 seconds
  • Align the texts to the left, not on the center
  • Remember to time-sync your captions to the audio for maximum efficiency
  • Reposition the text block if it is covering something important on the screen, like words and texts
  • For captioning, identify each speaker by name, e.g., Speaker 1 or 2, etc. 
  • Stray off of all caps captioning and be mindful of capitalization and punctuation 
  • Use an easy-to-read font for your captioning, particularly sans serif fonts like Helvetica
  • For captioning sound effects, use square brackets to emphasize them, e.g., [LAUGHTER] [Playing “Slave to Love”]

Final Thoughts

Now that we know that there are a number of differences between captions vs subtitles, even though they look very similar, it will be easy to distinguish and determine what we need and what you would like to use for your project. 

Both would require work to make creations accessible but going the extra mile to accommodate captioning will always work out in the end to reach a broader range of audiences. Go another extra mile to accommodate both then you can reach another realm of viewers globally. 

Accessibility and flexibility for everyone are the main things here, not to mention that it is always the right thing to do both in access and the business sense. So utilize both! 

For affordable, quality, and reliable transcription and captioning services, order from GoTranscript today!