Difference Between Captions and Subtitles

Displaying words on the screen, along with the visual media is very important, as it helps to propagate the media to people who are not familiar with the language. Movies and TV shows that are not written in English are displayed along with the translated dialogues to help viewers better understand the story.

Captions vs Subtitles

The main difference between captions and subtitles is that captions are used when the viewers are not able to listen to anything, or when there is no sound accompanying the visual media. Subtitles on the other hand are displayed when the movie or show being shown is in a different language. Thus subtitles do the job of translating the foreign language dialogues into English or the preferred language of the viewer.

Captions vs Subtitles

Captions are used in places where there is no sound accompanying the visual media. Thus captions are also used in the case of still media, such as photos, comics, graphic novels, or other forms of still graphic content. Captions are used to provide the viewing experience to the viewer without the use of sounds.

Subtitles are used essentially to translate the media which is in a foreign language, into whatever language the viewer is familiar with. Subtitles are timed transcriptions of audio files that convey the meaning behind the audio to the viewer to help the viewer better understand the material being displayed on the screen.

Comparison Table Between Captions and Subtitles

Parameters of ComparisonCaptionsSubtitles
DefinitionCaptions are texts that accompany a visual material when the sound is absentSubtitles are transcriptions of the audio files that are displayed along with the visual media and the audio
ObjectiveUsed to help the viewers understand the visual materialUsed to provide written translation of the audio
ScenarioUsed when the sound is presentUsed when the language is not native to the viewer
TypesThere are two types of captions, closed and open captionsSubtitles are different for different languages
UsageUsed for photos, silent movies, graphic novels, and other graphic mediaUsed only for movies, TV shows, and other forms of visual media

What is Captions?

Captions are texts that are displayed along with the visual media, such as photos or videos, to convey the actual meaning behind the media. Captions are used when there is no sound accompanying the visual media.

Thus in the absence of sound, understanding the idea or the story behind a photo or a video can be difficult. This happens most often when the actual meaning behind the photo can only be conveyed by providing texts with visual media.

Thus in such cases, captions are used. Captions were first introduced in the 1970s, by American broadcasting companies.

The objective behind captions was to help deaf and people with hearing issues have a better TV watching experience.  By the 1980s captions became a requirement for TV broadcasting companies in the US, by the government.

Since then captions have been providing a visual aid to TV viewers around the world. In the decades since 1980 however, captions found usage in a variety of visual media such as photos, online videos, Youtube videos, GIFs, etc.

There are two types of captions, open captions and closed captions. The difference between open and closed captions is that closed captions can be turned off by the viewer.

What is Subtitles?

Subtitles are transcriptions of the audio files and are displayed along with the visual media and the audio. In most cases, subtitles are translated transcripts that are translated from the original language of the audio, to the language that the viewers are familiar with.

Subtitles were first introduced in the 1930s to help viewers native to English, understand foreign movies that were made in a foreign language.

Thus this helped movie makers accommodate more viewers from different countries and help display movies in different countries.

Thus subtitles became an important means of showing as well as broadcasting foreign movies and TV shows to the larger, English-speaking part of the world.

 In today’s world, almost half of the movies and TV shows shown in theaters and on TVs are foreign production movies and TV shows. Thus, to understand and have a better viewing experience while watching such media, providing subtitles is necessary.

The primary use of subtitles is to translate the audio into a language that the viewer is familiar with, but providing visual texts along with the visual media also helps deaf and people hard of hearing have a better viewing experience.

Different languages have different transcriptions of subtitles. Thus along with English, subtitles are also made for other major languages such as German, French, Spanish, etc.

Main Differences Between Captions and Subtitles

  1. Captions are texts that accompany the visual material in the absence of sound. Subtitles are transcriptions of the audio files that are displayed along with the visual media and the audio
  2. Captions are used to help viewers understand the visual material. Subtitles are used to provide written translation of the audio
  3. Captions are used when the sound is absent. Subtitles are used when the language is foreign to the viewers.
  4. Captions are of two types, closed and open captions. Subtitles wary with the language
  5. Captions are used with photos, videos, silent movies, etc. subtitles are used only in case of movies, TV shows, etc


Watching TV shows and movies have changed drastically over the decades. Both captions and subtitles are excellent tools for moviemakers to provide a visual aid to the viewers.Captions are generally used when the audio is absent from the movie or TV show. Thus to make the audience better understand the scene, captions are used. Subtitles on the other hand are transcripts of the audio files. They are used when the movie or TV show is foreign to the audience. Thus a translated transcript in the language that is familiar to the audience helps the audience have a better viewing experience, without having the movie or show makers change the complete audio file of the movie or TV show.


  1. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/2372732215602130
  2. https://arxiv.org/abs/1511.02793
  3. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_aA6AAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA53&dq=subtitles&ots=k0nLIPb0Dd&sig=6eD-9qgWvxS92oyH-KIOioJcLb4
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