English Style Guide

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This guide is directed towards transcribers and translators who work in English. It contains advice on English spelling and punctuation conventions, line-breaking issues and common mistakes, as well as tips on how to make your English subtitles a better source text for translations into other languages.

American or British English

You can use either American and British spelling and punctuation rules, but please select one of the conventions and use it consistently in your subtitles.

Spelling conventions

Some of the American and British differences in spelling are largely regular (e.g. -our in BrE and -or in AmE), but there are other differences that are more difficult to predict. You can learn more in this Wikipedia article.


In British English, please use single quotation marks ('') on the outside of the quote and double quotation marks (“”) for quotes within quotes. American usage is the opposite – double quotation marks on the outside and single quotation marks for quotes within quotes. In British English, periods and commas at the end of a quote are placed outside of the closing quotation mark (for example: ‘This is a quote,’ she said, ‘and here is another one’.). American usage is the opposite, with periods and commas going before the closing quotation mark (for example: “This is a quote,” she said, “and here is another one.”).

Line breaking and subtitle ending

Every subtitle whose length exceeds 42 characters must be broken into two lines. No subtitle cannot go beyond the total length of 84 characters. Generally, each line should be broken only after a linguistic "whole" or "unit," no matter if it's the only line in the subtitle, or the first or second line in a longer subtitle. This means that sometimes it's necessary to rephrase the subtitle in order to make it possible to break lines without breaking apart any linguistic units, e.g. splitting apart an adjective and the noun that it refers to. For important and useful rules regarding line breaking in any language, see this guide. Below, you will find additional English-specific line breaking advice:

  • Keep forms of the verb “to be” with the predicate ("Jack/is a girl" not "Jack is/a girl")
  • Keep complex grammatical forms together ("Jack has been working/in Spain" not "Jack has/been working in Spain")
  • Keep the "to" infinitive together (“It’s not difficult/to eat slowly” not “It’s not difficult to/eat slowly”)
  • Keep articles and nouns together (“Paris is/a city in France” not “Paris is a/city in France”)
  • Keep “there + to be” (“there is,” “there was,” “there has been”… etc.) together (“I heard/there is fruit” not “I heard there/is fruit”)
  • Prepositions (“in,” “on,” “under,” etc.) should not be followed by a line break if the break would separate them from the noun they refer to. Note: A preposition in a concrete/physical meaning (e.g. "The book is in the drawer") always precedes a noun (or a “noun phrase,” like “the big dog”), and cannot be followed by a line break. However, in English, a preposition that is part of a phrasal verb (“put up,” “figure out,” “take in,” etc.) may sometimes not be followed by a noun ("I figured it out yesterday"). Prepositions that are part of phrasal verbs can often be followed by a line break.

How to make your work a good source for translations

English transcripts, as well as translations from other languages into English, will often serve as the starting point for further translations. This is why it is advisable to think about the future translations while creating English subtitles, and to find ways to make it easier to spread the ideas in the English subtitles in other target languages.

Keeping sentences unsplit

Since the sentence structure in the target language may be very different than in English, the translator won’t always be able to divide the subtitles to reflect the way in which the English sentence was split into subtitles. Keeping as much of one sentence together may help to make it easier, or possible, for the English subtitle to be translated into another language without merging or splitting subtitles in the process. You should always adhere to the 84 character per subtitle / 21 characters per second limit, but it may often be possible to create subtitles that contain complete clauses or sentences while still not going beyond those numbers.

Examples of convenient splitting

Sentences with relative clauses:


It’s that very interesting book

which I forgot about.

Optimized for translation

It’s that very interesting book
which I forgot about.

Unnecessary splitting within clauses:


This is the solution

that I talked about

at lunch yesterday,

right after Ann joined us.

Optimized for translation

This is the solution that I talked about
at lunch yesterday, right after Ann joined us.

Good reading speed

You should maintain the reading speed of every subtitle below 22 characters per second. In addition to the usual reasons (allowing every viewer to follow the subtitles while they are on the screen), the translation may be much longer than the English original, so the reading speed may easily grow in the target language. In order to maintain a good reading speed, you can rethink your subtitle splitting (perhaps the last few words can go into the next subtitle?) or modify the timing (be careful to keep the subtitles synchronized with the talk!), but in most cases, reducing the amount of text while keeping the meaning intact, also known as “compressing,” is the default solution. To learn more about compressing subtitles, see | this guide.

Common mistakes

Below, you will find a list of common mistakes found in English transcripts and translations.

Gonna, wanna, kinda, sorta

Gonna,” “wanna,” “kinda” and “sorta” are ways of pronouncing the phrases “going to,” “want to,” “kind of,” and “sort of,” respectively. Do not use them in English subtitles. Instead, use the full form (e.g. “going to” where you hear “gonna”).

Overusing dashes

Please avoid overusing the dash (–). Because the consecutive parts of the sentence "disappear" when the subtitles change, the meaning and use of the dash in the sentence is less clear and more difficult to follow to the reader of subtitles than it is in "regular" text. In most cases, the subtitle can be changed into a comma or a period (creating a new sentence). If you do wish to use a dash, in subtitles, please use the hyphen ("minus sign") instead of the full dash (–), since in many players, the real dash character may not be visible. The full dash character may be used in titles and descriptions.

Literal translation of idioms

Idioms are commonly known and used multi-word phrases with a metaphorical meaning. English examples of idioms would be “to put the cart before the horse” or “to get to the point.” When you come across an idiom while translating a talk into English, please do not translate it literally. Instead, try to focus on the actual meaning of the whole phrase, and then express the meaning in natural-sounding English. Idioms do not need to be translated as idioms; instead of trying to find an idiomatic phrase in English, which may sound outdated or forced, you can usually translate only the meaning of the idiom, which is like translating “get to the point” as “don’t digress” instead of “please reach the goal.” Do not try to translate the idiom literally, word for word, hoping that the viewer will understand the metaphor behind it. The meaning of the idiom in the original language may seem transparent to you, but most viewers with a different cultural background may not be able to understand it.

Translating proper names

Generally, proper names should not be translated. When you encounter a proper name, try to think about what the intended use of that proper name is in the given subtitle. In most cases, the speaker uses it to refer to something in the real world, so that people may either recall it if they have heard of it before, or look it up later. It is very rarely that speakers use the proper name just to share something about the name itself with the audience (e.g. a funny mistake in an established proper name, or a double entendre).

In some cases, there are established, well-known English versions of proper names (e.g. the French Riviera for Côte d'Azur). If you can find an established English equivalent, you should use it in your translation. However, if there is no such established English translation, and the speaker is using a proper name to allow the audience to recall or look up something in the real world, coming up with your own translation of the proper name would make it impossible for the viewer to actually look that thing up (since Google hits for the equivalent you created would yield no result). In such cases, you should leave the original name. Do not add a translation in parentheses. Parentheses should only be used for sound representation (like “(Applause)”). If you feel that it is necessary to give the viewer a little information on what the proper name refers to in order to allow them to follow the rest of the talk, you can modify the proper name to give the viewer a hint about what kind of thing it refers to, e.g. if it’s the name of a well-known research laboratory, you could paraphrase it as “the famous [proper name] research lab.”