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Captioning FAQ

Suggested Styles and Conventions for Closed Captioning
This brief description of captioning style was distilled from the Media Access Group at WGBH's in-house reference manual. It is being made available in the hope that exchanging our ideas might move the captioning industry at large toward a greater consistency of style.

Just as the English language has a multitude of exceptions to its general rules, so does captioning. It is not an exact science. The practices we describe here are the result of 30 years of experience in the captioning industry, an industry which is constantly evolving. Therefore, use this material as a basis for making individual decisions about readability, not as a set of rules to be followed without question. The captioner is, however, strongly advised to consider consistency when making decisions about caption style. Aim for a style that consistently conveys information in a clear, logical manner, using stylistic rules and conventions in a way that makes it easy for the viewer to understand and interpret the text.

Resources
The captioner should have easy access to a set of reference materials. Most important are an English-language manual of style, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, and an unabridged dictionary, such as Webster's New International Dictionary. Also recommended are encyclopedias, almanacs, atlases, and foreign-language dictionaries. For those with Internet access, the World Wide Web can be a very valuable resource.

For a complete technical description of the line-21 system and its capabilities, we suggest you read the FCC Rules (FCC 91-119 and FCC 92-157) and EIA-608.

Styles of Captioning
Two styles of line-21 caption display are currently in common use: pop-on and roll-up. A third display style, paint-on, was added to the decoder specification in 1985. While paint-on captions are sometimes used to display a caption at the beginning of a program segment, they are rarely used throughout a program.

This paper is divided into two sections, one for pop-on captions and one for roll-up captions. Unless indicated otherwise, most of the rules for pop-on captions apply to roll-up as well.

Section I: Pop-On Captioning
A pop-on caption is usually one or two rows long. When a sentence must be divided into two or more captions, break it at a logical phrase rather than at a random point. For example:

Preferred:
MY, WHAT DANGEROUS GAMES
WE USED TO PLAY

IN THE RUINS OF THIS CITY.
To be avoided:
MY, WHAT DANGEROUS GAMES
WE USED

TO PLAY IN THE RUINS
OF THIS CITY.

If a caption has more than one row, break the row in a similarly logical place:

Preferred:
MY, WHAT DANGEROUS GAMES
WE USED TO PLAY...
To be avoided:
MY, WHAT DANGEROUS GAMES WE USED
TO PLAY...

A period usually indicates the end of a caption, and the next sentence starts with a new caption. For example:

Preferred:
WELCOME TO THE CITY
OF LINCOLN.
WE HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAY.
To be avoided:
WELCOME TO THE CITY
OF LINCOLN. WE HOPE

YOU ENJOY YOUR STAY.

Editing
When captioning first began more than 30 years ago, editing text for both language level and reading speed was customary. The rationale for this was that this type of editing would make it easier for the people who are deaf and hard of hearing to understand the program. Experience has shown, however, that much of the caption-viewing audience prefers to have a verbatim or near-verbatim rendering of the audio; therefore, any editing that occurs nowadays is usually for reading speed only. Strive for a reading speed that allows the viewer enough time to read the captions yet still keep an eye on the program video. Once you reach a decision on caption-reading speed, use that speed consistently in your work.

When editing becomes necessary because of limited reading time, try to maintain precisely the original meaning and flavor of the language as well as the personality of the speaker. Avoid editing only a single word from a sentence as this does not really extend reading time. Similarly, avoid substituting one longer word for two shorter words (or a shorter word for a longer word) or simply making a contraction from two words (e.g., contracting "should not" to "shouldn't").

Children's programs are customarily edited more heavily for a slower reading speed (and for linguistic simplicity). "Classic" literature, poetry, film, songs, and direct quotes from public figures should be captioned verbatim whenever possible. If editing is absolutely necessary, cut whole phrases rather than paraphrasing.

Identification Placement
Captions are used not only to convey what is being said, but also who is saying it and how it is being expressed. These attributes may be indicated via the placement and timing of the text.

When considering the placement of captions, keep in mind what action is occurring in a given scene. If only one person talks throughout a scene, captions are generally placed at bottom center. If there are multiple characters in a scene, caption placement on or near individual speakers is used to indicate who is saying what.

Under normal circumstances, a speaker is identified through the placement of his/her caption. When it is not possible to use placement to indicate the speaker (i.e., if the speaker is offscreen), an ID may be added to the caption. Since this is not spoken information, it should be distinguished in some way from captioning representing the rest of the soundtrack. The Media Access Group's convention is to show IDs in uppercase, rendered in Roman and set off with a colon. Parentheses or brackets may also be considered. For example, a bottom-center caption with an ID might look like this:


Narrator:
THE RIVERS RAN DRY
WITH DEVASTATING EFFECTS.




A left-placed caption:
Sue Ellen:
WHY ON EARTH
WOULD HE DO THAT?


A right-placed caption:

  Sue Ellen:
WHY ON EARTH
WOULD HE DO THAT?



IDs for characters (and the method for identifying them) should be consistent throughout a program. For example, in dramas, use the name by which the character is most generally known.

Timing
To convey pacing appropriate to humor, suspense, and drama, as well as to indicate who is speaking, captions may be timed to appear and disappear precisely when the words are spoken. The text may be timed to change with shot changes for readability and aesthetic purposes. In applying timing conventions, consider that logical caption division should not be sacrificed for exactitude in timing. Readability should always be the first priority.

To increase reading time, a series of captions may sometimes be timed to begin before the corresponding audio begins and/or to end after the audio has ended. If the speaker's lips are visible, however, it may be disconcerting to the viewer to see captions while no one is apparently speaking.

Sound Effects
Sound-effect captions are used to describe sounds that add to the narrative. As with IDs, these are not words actually contained in the audio and should be distinguished as such. See the previous section for suggested practices. The Media Access Group's practice, for example, is to show sound-effect captions in lowercase italics enclosed in parentheses:

( dog barking ) ( child screaming ) ( shutter clicks )

Sound-effect captions may also be used to indicate the source of the sound through the use of placement. Such captions may be used to describe the manner in which something is spoken. For example:

( whispering ): ( giggling ):
PLEASE OPEN THE DOOR! or WASN'T THAT FUNNY?


Typography
For ease of reading in today's caption displays, caption text is generally rendered in uppercase and lowercase, or sentence case, Roman font. Refer to EIA-608 for a full description of all 112 characters available in the line-21 system.

Italics and Underline
As in printed text, upper- and lowercase italics and underlining may be used to indicate emphasis. You may use the standard print method -- i.e., italics -- of setting off the text of a speaker who is not physically present in a scene, such as a narrator, the voice in a dream, a flashback, or the voiceover reading of a letter. (In documentaries, however, a frequently heard voice such as the narrator's is usually in Roman.)

Similarly, set off the names of television series, books, periodicals, newspapers, movies, plays, and large musical works with italics. Television episodes, stories, essays, articles, songs, and poems should also be distinguished, rendered in Roman and set off with quotes. Consult your chosen style manual for particulars concerning foreign languages, names of newspapers, periodicals, legal cases, vehicles, etc.

Music
When captioning music, use the musical note available as part of the line-21 character set to differentiate song from spoken word. The musical note may be placed at the beginning and end of each caption, for example, to indicate that the words displayed are being sung and not spoken. Songs and jingles should be captioned verbatim. Punctuate them sparingly, but insert some punctuation to indicate the end of the song.

Instrumental music may be described as well. Use the title of a song whenever possible. (Many caption viewers have usable hearing or lost their hearing later in life, and may know or recall song titles and lyrics.)

Numbers
Consult your English-language style manual for standard conventions dealing with numbers. The Media Access Group's practice is to spell out the numbers one through ten (inclusive); numbers over ten are rendered as numerals. If a large number is the only word in a caption, though, it is spelled out. Numerals of 1,000 and larger are written with commas. Dates are written conventionally (1957, not 1,957).

Punctuation and Spelling
Captioning follows the conventional rules for punctuation and spelling as outlined in standard English-language style manuals and dictionaries. Make your choice of spelling consistent; for example, when more than one spelling of a word is allowed by the dictionary, The Caption Center's practice is to use the spelling listed first.

Render contractions in a consistent manner that is clear to the viewer. For example, use only the most standard: DON'T, DOESN'T, DIDN'T, WON'T, WOULDN'T, etc. In general, avoid hard-to-read or awkward contractions, or using 'S for anything other than possessives.

When representing dialect, it is best to have a convention that dictates when to deviate from standard English spellings and when not to. The Media Access Group has chosen to use forms such as GONNA, THINKIN', DOIN', and GOIN' only when these usages are important in the depiction of a particular character.

Section II: Roll-Up Captioning

Unless specifically addressed here, suggested stylistic practices for roll-up captioning follow the conventions described above.

Roll-up captions are usually verbatim. Each new sentence begins a new row, and each speaker change is indicated with a speaker-change symbol (two "greater-than" symbols -- >> -- plus a space). The FCC decoder specification allows roll-up captions to be relocated to various vertical screen placements by the caption provider. If you use this feature, bear in mind that some existing set-top adapters will continue to display roll-up captions at the bottom of the picture. It is advisable, therefore, to include any identifying information that may be obscured by the captions. For example:

>> Smith: WELCOME TO
THE CITY OF LINCOLN.
WE HOPE YOU WILL BE ABLE
TO SPEND SOME TIME
IN OUR HISTORIC DISTRICT.

>> James Moore, longtime
Lincoln resident: THE HISTORIC
DISTRICT IS LOCATED AT
THE NORTH END OF TOWN.
YOU CAN REACH IT BY CAR,
TRAIN, OR BUS.


Timing
Roll-up captions are timed with audio. A new caption row is generally displayed just as the speaker begins to say the first words in the row. The caption display is usually erased when there is a significant pause in the audio.

Conclusion
The caption styles that have been summarized in this paper show that captioning is, in fact, more than simply rendering spoken words into text. In addition to displaying what is being said, captions convey all the concomitant non-dialogue information that the hearing audience takes for granted. Widespread use of captioning will create further opportunities for industry-wide discussion regarding stylistic practices. While there will be stylistic differences among captioning agencies, consistency will, in the end, best serve the caption viewer.

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© 2002 Media Access Group at WGBH
This document may not be copied or distributed without the permission of the Media Access Group at WGBH. Its use does not constitute any association with or approval by the Media Access Group at WGBH or the WGBH Educational Foundation.


















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