Captions and Subtitles, What’s the difference

Captions and subtitles, these are the two terms often used as synonyms in the context of videos. Are they really same? What’s the difference? Where will accessibility fit in the game?

Dictionary meaning of captions and subtitles

The meaning of these terms are context dependent.


From the Cambridge dictionary

A short piece of text under a picture in a book, magazine, or newspaper that describes the picture or explains what the people in it are doing or saying.


From Cambridge dictionary

Words shown at the bottom of a film or television picture to explain what is being said.

For Example :  The Chinese movie was shown with English subtitles. Or

The evening news has subtitles for the deaf.

On a high-level, both words try to convert the spoken words or pictorial representations into a written text and display them.

What does W3C WCAG say about captions and subtitles?


W3c’s WCAG do not directly provide a meaning of subtitles. However as a note to differentiate the terms,

Captions are similar to dialogue-only subtitles except captions convey not only the content of spoken dialogue, but also equivalents for non-dialogue audio information needed to understand the program content, including sound effects, music, laughter, speaker identification and location.

Further W3C WCAG says, “In some countries, captions are called subtitles.

“ in the notes for captions.


As per W3C WCAG standards, captions are

Synchronized visual and/or text alternative for both speech and non-speech audio information needed to understand the media content.

Subtitles are sometimes referred as SDHH, Subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing. SDHH solves the purpose of both captions and subtitles. They provide additional information a person with hard of hearing requires along with the translation of the spoken content to different language.

Comparison of captions and subtitles

Captions Subtitles
Captions are intended to provide the textual form of spoken content. Subtitles are intended to convert the spoken text into text along with translation to different language than the spoken one.
Primary beneficiaries are those who cannot hear the spoken content (deaf) Primary beneficiaries are those who cannot follow the language of spoken content.
Captions must include the non-verbal sounds such as ringing of telephone, audience applause etc Subtitles are the literal translation of spoken content, non-verbal translation is not necessary.
Captions are never intended to translate the content to a different language Subtitles in the form of SDHH act as captions as well as subtitles.
Captions are mandatory to adhere the standards and legal requirements such as Section 504, Section 508 of Rehabilitation Act, CVAA of FCCA and W3C’s WCAG standards. Subtitles are legally not required but increases the market reach because of the globalization.

Why are captions and subtitles important?

  1. Subtitles reaches to wider market because of multiple language benefit.
  2. Captions reach wider market by adding people with hard of hearing, using videos in noisy environment etc.
  3. Captions help in adhering to various disability discrimination acts through-out the globe.
  4. Captions and subtitles increase revenue to the business.
  5. Both of them help in search engine optimization.



Captions and subtitles are identical but different. Though not the popular term SDHH (subtitles for deaf and hard of hearing) solves the intention of captions and subtitles. Captions are mandatory to meet global accessibility standards such as W3C’s WCAG and legal requirements such as Section 504 and Section 508 of Rehabilitation Act, FCC’s CVAA.