Guidelines For Creating Online Subtitles

I bet you clicked on this article because you wanted to know what exactly online subtitles are. Online subtitles are just normal subtitles that are created for videos which are posted on online platforms. Such platforms include YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and so many others. When you see videos on online platforms and they have texts at the bottom of the screen, we refer to those as online subtitles.

In this article, we will give you a 101 on everything you should know about online subtitles, how to create them, and make sure they are working to benefit your content fully. Creating subtitles is not as easy as just writing texts for an audiovisual, there are usually rules and guidelines that must be followed to ensure that the subtitles are in the best format possible.

Below are some guidelines you need to follow when creating online subtitles:

  1. You should always make sure that your subtitles go word for word with the audio you are working with. They must show on the screen and disappear at the exact time the audio starts and ends. Normally subtitles that don’t follow this guideline are usually termed as off-subtitles which always makes it hard for the audience to follow them through on movies.
  2. When there is a very long dialogue, ensure to have at most two lines of a subtitle on the screen. This usually ensures that all the subtitles can be seen on the screen depending on what size of the screen an individual is using to view the audiovisual.
  3. Always ensure to set the minimum time display for subtitles at 1.5 seconds for super short dialogues. This ensures that you have accurate subtitles unlike when you let short dialogues sit on the screen for too long and there is no audio for them.
  4. A good set of online subtitles will consider the audience’s concentration on the film and not only the subtitles. When creating your subtitles be sure to set enough time depending on the events on a scene to ensure the audience can read them and still follow through with the movie.
  5. When creating subtitles of a song where some lyrics are repeated or sung twice while following each other, create a gap between the end of the first lyric and the start of the second repeated lyric. What this does is that it creates a ‘blink’ that will make the audience aware that the lyric was sung twice.
  6. Always ensure that you use a separate subtitle for every sentence on a dialogue. This means that all new sentences should be on different lines unless the said sentence is super short. Always ensure that each sentence is on a different line.
  7. By now we all know that subtitling involves a lot of translation. Avoid word-for-word translation when creating subtitles. Ensure to translate the meaning of the subtitle and not necessarily the words so that you can keep the same context intended in the original language. Basically, make sure that the subtitles make sense and are relatable to the target audience.
  8.  Where public figures have some form of speech, always ensure that you caption them in verbatim. This means you have to caption them word for word omitting no filler words. This ensures that the meaning is expressed easily and directly. You should caption all words regardless of language, dialect, or slang.
  9. When it comes to sound, you will meet videos that have inaudible sounds and be able to make it known by explaining the cause. A good example would be in a scene where cars are hooting loudly and the speech is not audible, you will make it known by captioning it as (Car hooting drowns speech)
  10. All sounds made, however small or irrelevant they might seem to you, must be indicated on the subtitles. In this case, sound effects are usually captioned in lowercase italics and enclosed in brackets.  
  11. In a scene where more than one person is talking, be able to show who said what by using the names of the actors and writing what exactly they said. This is important because it helps the audience be aware of which speaker said what exactly.  
  12. When you come across a song on a video that needs to be subtitled, it is very important to show that by using the music icon (♪) at the beginning and at the end of the song being sang. e.g. ♪ Yes, I’ll do the cooking, yes, I’ll do the eating ♪
  13. Always caption silent dialogues (when a scene has people speaking from a distance and there is no sound). Caption them by either writing [no audio] or [silence].


When it comes to punctuation, production houses and translators have a hard time deciding what goes and what stays. Punctuation of subtitles is a concept that has mixed views but I will be able to outline some views that are generally shared across the board. Translators have a very broad outlook on what kinds of punctuations are used when creating subtitles for online and offline use. For instance, some do believe that using periods at the end of sentences, signals to the eye that it can go back to the image since there is no consecutive subtitle to anticipate. Below we will look at how different punctuation marks are used when creating subtitles.

  1. Question marks (?) are usually used to indicate that a question has been asked while exclamation marks (!) are used when trying to show emphasis on a statement that has been made. Both should be positioned after the last character on a subtitle.
  2. Be sure to use a single space after commas, colons, semi-colons and mid-subtitle full-stops, on both sides of dashes before opening brackets and after closing brackets. Also avoid using spaces for mid-word hyphen.
  3. On a scene where a speaker is interrupted and the other speaker happens to finish the statement, indicate that by using double hyphens or a single long dash at the beginning of both statements.
  4. When there is a significant pause within a captioned dialogue, it is very important to showcase that by using an ellipsis (…). Be sure to note that an ellipsis should not be used to show that a sentence continues into the next caption.
  5. For any scene with an on-screen reading of a poem, book, play, journal, or letter use quotation marks to illustrate that on subtitles.
  6. All sentences should start with a capital letter and also avoid using capital letters to show emphasis on a particular word unless to indicate screaming.
  7. When it comes to numbers, be sure to present them according to their relevant conventions.  eg telephone numbers (xxx-xxxx; xxx-xxx-xxxx) or other long numbers in groups of three (10,000 / 100,000).
  8. When including numbers on subtitles be sure to spell out numbers from one to ten and any number above ten use numerals.
  9. When referring to technical and athletic terms be sure to use numeral numbers instead of spelling them out.
  10. When talking about days of the month and no month has been mentioned use numerals plus the lowercase “th,” “st,” or “nd”.
  11. Times of the day should always be indicated in numerals.
  12. A decade should be captioned as “the 1980s” (not “the 1980’s”) and “the ’50s” (not “the 50’s”).
  13. One last important thing that you need to consider when creating online subtitles is line breaks. Where you should break a line and where you should not. Subtitle lines should end at natural linguistic breaks, ideally at clause or phrase boundaries. Do not break a person’s name or title from within a line. Do not break a line after conjunction and finally do not break an auxiliary verb from the word it changes.


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