The Beginner’s Guide to Closed Captioning Symbols

By: Verbit Editorial
remote pointed to a screen

In a recent study, 66% of consumers reported that video is their #1 source of information. While the majority of consumers engage with video content on a daily basis, not all viewers are able to engage in precisely the same ways. People with certain disabilities and learning differences often require accommodations like closed captions to fully engage with information in videos. 

An ever-growing percentage of the population prefers to watch visual media with on-screen captions. However, for these captions to be effective, they must be accurate and capable of representing subtle audio components. A number of symbols and stylistic choices can help convey the visual language of closed captions to provide more equitable viewing experiences for all audience members.  

A quick overview of captioning

Captioning, in general, refers to the process of converting audio to on-screen text that conveys both the spoken language and non-speech audio elements of a video. There are two primary styles of captioning: open captions and closed captions.

Open captions are a style of captioning that essentially hardwires the onscreen captions into a video file. These captions are sometimes referred to as “burned in” or “baked in” because they are permanently affixed to a video file. In other words, it’s not possible to turn these captions off.   

Closed captions, on the other hand, allow users to choose whether or not to view a video with captions. Viewers can turn closed captions on and off at will with the use of a remote control or on-screen [cc] button. In many cases, users can also control the style of their captions, so they can choose the best font for captioning depending on their specific needs and preferences.  

How closed captioning uses symbols 

There are many symbols and stylistic elements that allow closed captions to further improve a viewer’s comprehension of a video. These closed captioning symbols now have universal meanings so that viewers of all backgrounds can engage equally with a video and its messaging. Refer to the below closed captioning style guide to better understand the unique purposes that these common symbols and captioning styles serve for viewers.  

Conveying different speakers

The vast majority of the time, closed captions will need to convey the words many individuals are speaking – sometimes simultaneously. There are a few different ways to accomplish this with captions, including: 

  • Different colors: The captions display color-coded text to denote different speakers. 
  • Hyphens: Hyphens () at the beginning of spoken lines can establish the beginning of a new speaker’s line of text.  
  • Names: When there are multiple speakers present in a video, it can be helpful to name each speaker at the beginning of his/her respective line.  

John: Hi, I’m John.
Sally: Hello, I’m Sally.

Denoting a speaker’s location

Sometimes, it might be necessary or helpful to clarify the location of a speaker or sound effect in a specific scene. Here are a few ways captions perform this function:  

  • Quotation marks: Quotation marks (“”) convey when a character is quoting another character who is not present or referencing an outside text. Failure to convey when a speaker is quoting another person can be a source of major confusion for a viewer who is following along with the captions.  
  • Arrows: A line of text that is contained within two arrows (<>) indicates that the line is being delivered from off-screen. These arrows can also indicate the direction of a specific sound effect or interjection.  

Explosion >(indicates that the explosion occurred on the righthand portion of the screen)

Clarifying quality of speech

Certain non-verbal sounds or changes in vocal tone can convey a speaker’s opinion, emotional state or intent. It’s possible to portray those subtleties in captions via:  

  • Parentheses/Brackets: These symbols name the quality of speech or simply indicate when the quality of speech changes. If a character is suddenly speaking quietly, the captions may be formatted like this:

    (quietly) We need to be quiet…
    (We need to be quiet…)

  • Punctuation marks within brackets: Question or exclamation marks within parentheses or brackets (?) denote sarcasm. Sarcasm can be particularly challenging to convey in a written format, so this symbology can be very useful for clarifying intent.  
  • Capital letters: Writing a word in full capital letters can denote yelling, while capitalizing only specific words in a phrase can help to convey a speaker’s emphasis on that word.  
  • Ellipses: Ellipses (…) are used to convey pauses or breaks in speech.  

A note about captioning music

You might be wondering about some other common captioning symbols. For example, what does # mean in captions? The # symbol is actually used for captioning music and is used to distinguish between spoken text and sung lyrics. You can learn more about captioning music in our quick-start guide.  

Comprehensive captions from Verbit

Verbit is a proud partner of media companies, filmmakers and content creators around the world thanks to our easy-to-use platform and industry-leading accuracy rates. Verbit’s closed captions improve the accessibility of video content for individuals who require additional support and are a helpful tool for anyone looking to expand the reach of their content.

Reach out today to learn more about Verbit’s captioning, transcription, translation and audio description solutions, and take the next step toward creating more inclusive, engaging video content for all.