In the wikipedia article about closed captioning one reads

Most of the world does not distinguish captions from subtitles. In the United States and Canada, these terms do have different meanings, however: "subtitles" assume the viewer can hear but cannot understand the language or accent, or the speech is not entirely clear, so they only transcribe dialogue and some on-screen text. "Captions" aim to describe to the deaf and hard of hearing all significant audio content [including] music or sound effects ...
The United Kingdom, Ireland, and most other countries do not distinguish between subtitles and closed captions, and use "subtitles" as the general term—the equivalent of "captioning" is usually referred to as "Subtitles for the hard of hearing".

Questions: Are these assertions about the respective meanings in United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, and "most other countries" correct? If so, on what authority? If not, what meanings are correct?

  • 1
    The US has a higher percentage of "non-native speakers" who can hear perfectly well, and are simply using the subtitles to improve their English. Thus Americans have more use for this distinction within their own borders, but the number of people who actually need to be told "violins play in the background" is so small it's not really important anyway. Feb 14, 2012 at 17:43
  • 4
    @FumbleFingers: I doubt that is true. Countries such as Switzerland, where a small population (under 8 million) uses three different languages, most films are subtitled (even in two languages simultaneously). This is not uncommon in Europe. The claim that the US has a higher percentage of non-native speakers is a bold one, and I dispute it. And, in any case, you don't need to be non-native in order to need subtitles; see the Swiss example.
    – CesarGon
    Feb 14, 2012 at 18:15
  • 3
    @CesarGon: I am speaking primarily from the UK perspective, obviously. I don't know what the current situation is in Oz or Canada, for example. And it makes little difference to anyone whether the Swiss understand this distinction between subtitles and captions - English isn't even in their top three languages. Feb 14, 2012 at 18:22
  • ...you might like to peruse US Census data from 2000 (I don't have anything both authoritative and more recent). Americans speaking a language other than English at home rose from 11% in 1980, thru 14% in 1990, to 18% in 2000, so one should expect it to be even higher today. At 4%, the percentage admitting they don't speak English very well is at least double that in the UK, according to Wikipedia Feb 14, 2012 at 18:58
  • 1
    "A multitude of languages are used in Canada. According to the 2006 census, English and French are the mother tongues of 58.8% and 23.2% of Canadians respectively."
    – Hugo
    Feb 14, 2012 at 21:38

3 Answers 3


From Apple's Final Cut Studio documentation:

In the U.S., closed captioning for broadcast is mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). If you’re delivering tape masters for broadcast, closed captioning may be an important consideration. Subtitles are usually provided as a convenience, although translation to a country’s native language may be required for film festival or theatrical exhibition and will certainly enhance your ability to find theatrical or DVD distribution there.

Closed captioning is mandated for Canadian broadcasters as well, by the Canadian Broadcasting Act. Standards for assistive technologies like closed captioning are fragmented the European market, although they're being considered in draft standards for Internet television delivery in Europe.

Final Cut's documentation continues:

Closed captioning is a subtitling system designed to make television more accessible to the hearing-impaired. Unlike movie subtitles, which are intended to translate dialogue for people who can hear the rest of the soundtrack, closed captions need to convey all important sound effects, music cues, nonverbal expressions, and dialogue that occur as a program plays.


Subtitling is usually done for the purpose of translating either particular scenes or an entire program. It may be done because the dialogue is in another language or because the dialogue is simply unintelligible to the intended audience.

The easiest way to add permanent subtitles (sometimes called open captioning) to your program is also the most time-consuming: editing superimposed text generators into your sequence one at a time.

Closed captioning is mandated specifically "to meet the needs of Deaf, deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing people" [Captioning in Canada], and so the specific distinction of closed captioning from subtitling is made in the US and Canada (and apparently Australia).

Since most of the rest of the world has no such mandate, they make no such distinction.


From an AmE perspective (these are supported (after the fact) by googling for 'definition X') :

'Subtitles' refers to only those words printed on the screen for a movie, usually for foreign films or for when those who are speaking in the movie are otherwise unintelligible (mumbling, too much noise, or too far away from the camera.

'Captions' can be used for the same, but are more commonly used for the generic situation of words underneath an image, like a caption for a figure in a document.

'Closed captions' are specifically for describing the technique of synchronous words on a television channel.

'Closed captions' are not used to describe the things in movies; 'captions' might be but if you pointed at a words below the action in a movie theater they would be called 'subtitles' first well before being called 'captions', but it would be acceptable to refer to them using either ('subtitles' is expected). And in the wikipedia article it looks like they're just using the short form 'captions' for 'closed captions' to make the exposition easier to read.

  • Mitch, please edit to indicate if you speak from a B.E. vs A.E. point of view, and indicate sources if any. Thanks! BTW, the paragraph before the one I quoted defines open & closed: "The term "closed" in closed captioning indicates that not all viewers see the captions—only those who choose to decode or activate them. This distinguishes from "open captions" (sometimes called "burned-in" or "hardcoded" captions), which are visible to all viewers." Feb 14, 2012 at 17:47
  • done. I have no idea about the non-AmE uses of the two words.
    – Mitch
    Feb 14, 2012 at 18:01
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    Captions isn't normally used in the UK, so this distinction would rarely be either made or understood. Most of the major TV channels broadcast a fair amount of stuff with sign language (usually late an night, but most people who need such things have PVRs so that's not an issue). And even most live broadcasts have subtitling - primarily done by speech recognition software, so quality is often indifferent, to say the least. Feb 14, 2012 at 21:36
  • @FumbleFingers, In "PVR" what is "P"? (VR = video recorder, presumably) Feb 14, 2012 at 22:40
  • @FumbleFingers: that sounds like the start of an answer that the OP is looking for, a UK perspective on the nuances among those terms. Can you make your comment into a fuller answer?
    – Mitch
    Feb 14, 2012 at 22:54

I think there are perfectly good answers, so I'm wondering if you're just looking for short and sweet. I'm in the US. I choose subtitles on a DVD if it's in a foreign language. My Dad chooses closed captioning on his TV settings because he can't hear the TV well; also, he chooses subtitles on any DVD he watches. So they are really two different things, yet can be used similarly.

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