How TV Captions Get from A Captioner’s Brain to You

Answering a reader's questions and diving into the intricacies and mental gymnastics within a captioner's brain!
How TV Captions get from a Captioner's Brain to You

Article sourced with permission from – Stenofabulous

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

I really love it when readers leave comments on my posts.
You know that feeling when you get a package in the mail? Yeah, that’s what it’s like for me when I get a comment notification.

It lets me know that what I write is being read, making people think, and, more importantly, ENJOYED!

Last week, an insightful reader named Gabby commented on my post, “What Does a Closed Captioner Do,” and asked a list of questions about the difficulties of captioning live television.

They’re questions I get a lot when people find out what I do for a living, so I thought I’d use Gabby’s questions and write a post about what is going on in a captioner’s brain while we’re writing live television.

Hi, I’m a Captioner’s Brain, and I Multitask. A LOT.

How TV Captions get from a Captioner's Brain to You

When I’m writing a live TV show, my brain is doing like, a million things all at once.

No, seriously.

Well, maybe a million is a bit of an overstatement. But as we write what we’re hearing, the captioner’s brain is simultaneously making many mini-decisions in a split second.

My answers to Gabby’s questions below will really give you a peek into the complex workings of a captioner’s brain.

When words sound alike such as “to, too, two,” is it confusing remembering the correct strokes?

How TV Captions get from a Captioner's Brain to You

Not really. It’s been burned into our brains and fingers since we first started learning to write on our machines.

If you were watching your favorite show and a caption popped up and said, “I want two go too the game,” you’d think that captioner had been hitting the sauce.

When we’re in school, we’re taught how to write homophones differently. So I have three separate strokes for to, too, and two. In fact I have separate strokes for EVERY homophone.

Do you know the difference between marshal, marshall, and martial? How about karat, carat, and caret? Or my favorite, canvas and canvass.

Ah, the English language. How it can make you want to bang your head against the wall.

And while we’re on the homophone subject, the same principle applies to people’s names. It’s a MAJOR pet peeve of mine.

Alan, Alen, Allen.

Brittany, Britney, Brittanie, Bretagne.

Emily, Emilee, Emmalee.

Caitlyn, Caitlin, Kaitlyn, Kaitlin, Catelyn.

Ugh, you get the idea.

Please, parents, do captioners a favor. Don’t be cute and spell your kid’s name funky. ????

How do you remember all the entries in your dictionary?

How TV Captions get from a Captioner's Brain to You

It’s magic.

When I was training to become a captioner, I actually asked the same question to my instructor. She said you just know.

I thought she was nuts. How can you memorize a 150,000+ word dictionary? But she was right.

Don’t ask me how, but I have a pretty good idea when I hear a word whether or not it’s in my dictionary.

If someone says something you don’t have in your dictionary, can you add new terms on the spot?

How TV Captions get from a Captioner's Brain to YouAs much as I wish I could, I cannot add entries to my dictionary when I’m live. I have to work with what I’ve got.

Even though my dictionary is pretty large, there’s still thousands of words that’s not in there because I haven’t came across them yet.

People like to make up words on the fly, and there’s probably some spelling of Caitlyn out there I haven’t come across either.

If they do say something that I know isn’t in my dictionary I have a couple options:

Fingerspell that sucker out as best as I can. It may not be correctly spelled, but hopefully it’s close enough you can get the idea. It does help if I’m able to watch the show I’m captioning because the person’s name, city, or whatever is often flashed on the screen and I can spell it out.

But fingerspelling has its challenges because I still have to keep up with what’s being said. Having to fingerspell a name like Willacoochee is going to take up precious milliseconds when someone is talking really fast.

Try to write around it and write, “the player” or “the company, etc.” This is my last resort. I can’t just stop writing because something isn’t in my dictionary. The viewer isn’t going to know why I stopped. Similarly, I can’t just write it what I heard because it’s going to come up jibbersh the viewer isn’t going to be able to read either.

What about multiple speakers who may overlap each other in heated debates/conversations, do you have a captioner writing for each speaker?


No, it’s just lil’ ole me captioning every speaker in an argumentative debate like that.

People who talk/yell/scream over each other make it tough on captioners. Basically, for me anyway, the loudest and most understandable people get captioned.

If I can make out what’s being said by a person I write them, then switch to the other person who is yelling/arguing and try to write what they’re saying in response. While I’m doing that, I’m also keeping in mind it’s got to make sense to a viewer.

There’s been a few times where I couldn’t understand what was being said by ANYONE. It’s times like that I just want to slap every last one of them.

Instead I just have to wait a few seconds and hope they calm down, breathe, or have a sudden attack of decorum so I can understand them.

What do you do when people talk too fast and you miss/forget what they said?

Freak out and hold on.

A lot of people are naturally fast talkers, others just talk fast because they’re nervous. Either way, they make me sweat bullets.

I’m being honest here. Sometimes me and my fellow captioners just can’t keep up with super fast talkers who talk over 300 words per minute for long bursts, especially if they’re talking over each other.

We’re all amazing and caption like a boss, but in the end we’re humans and have limitations just like everyone else.

When that happens, we as captioners just do the best we can. Usually this means we try to give you the Cliff Notes version of what was said, but still stick strictly with the original meaning and intent so the viewer understands.

Then we pray they take a breath or cough or something so we can catch up.

What do you do when you can’t understand someone’s heavy accent?

How TV Captions get from a Captioner's Brain to You


It is very hard to write speakers who have heavy accents. I’ve literally just been staring at my computer screen going, what the heck are you saying? Is this even English?

Again, we just have to do the best we can and write what words we can decipher. (and hope it makes sense)

Is there anything you can think of that would help ease the mental intensity during your job?

God bless you for asking that question!

Unfortunately, no. Captioning is a very tough job that requires a high level of mental ability. As long as there’s live television, there will be pressure on captioners to do a near flawless job of getting captions to your screen.

This article was written by the talented court reporter Julia of Stenofabulous, with permission to repost.  She has been a court reporter for 11 years now.  You can see more of her great work and articles over at her site.

Not only is she a talented writer and stenographer, but she also designs some fun work accessories.  Who wouldn’t want one of these fun Post-It notes?

Captioning is Cool - Stenofabulous