English Style Guide

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

Avoiding character display errors: simple quotes, apostrophes and dashes and rich formatting

Using smart/curly double quotes (“”) in subtitles is precarious, because some players will have trouble displaying them correctly. Use the simple, straight ASCII double quote (") or the straight apostrophe (') for single quotes. The rule is similar for apostrophes: use the straight apostrophe (') instead of the typographic/curly apostrophe (’). Instead of an en/em dash (–/—), use a hyphen (-). Note: It's OK to use conventional punctuation (e.g. full en dashes) in video titles and descriptions (as opposed to subtitles).

Similarly, you should not use HTML tags or any other formatting tags in English subtitles.

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. You may consider making the first note in the Amara editor one that states if you've used American or British English in order to better inform the reviewer. As a reviewer, don't change the spelling and punctuation rules to your preferred variety of English if the subtitles use US or British English consistently (for the most part).

Spelling conventions

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


In American English, separate dots / ellipses from other words with a space, before and after the dots (do not send subtitles back if there's no space before and after ellipses, as this should be considered a minor punctuation issue).

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 after the closing quotation mark. Note that in British English, periods and commas that are part of the person's speech are placed inside the quotation marks[1]. Consider these examples:

  • Comma not originally part of the quoted text:
    • American English: "In fact, Friday," she said, "is the best day of the week."
    • British English: 'In fact, Friday', she said, 'is the best day of the week.'
  • Comma originally part of the quoted text:
    • American English: "In fact," she said, "Friday is the best day of the week."
    • British English: 'In fact,' she said, 'Friday is the best day of the week.'


Spell out numbers from 1 to 9, and use digits for numbers 10 and above. It is OK to occasionally use digits for numbers 1–9 if that is necessary to help fix reading speed issues. Also, for numbers higher than 999,999, it is OK to use a word like "million," "billion" etc. with a numerical modifier, e.g. "1.6 million" instead of "1,600,000." Use your best judgment – sometimes, it may be easier to use digits, especially when trying to maintain a good reading speed, e.g. "1,000,012" instead of "one million and twelve." See also the section on converting units of length and weight below.

Names of large numbers (billion vs trillion)

When translating into English, make sure to use the short-scale number terms. Be careful when dealing with "false friends," which are terms that sound similar across languages but mean something different depending on the large number naming convention. For example, the French billion translates to trillion in English, while the English billion is the equivalent of the French milliard. To find the right equivalent, figure out what the number means in the source language and then look through this Wikipedia article to find the English short-scale term.

Line breaking and subtitle ending

Every subtitle whose length exceeds 42 characters must be broken into two lines. No subtitle can 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) and with the subject pronoun (we are/here not we/are here)
  • Keep complex grammatical forms together (Jack has been working/in Spain not Jack has/been working in Spain)
  • Don't break lines or end subtitles after contracted forms of verbs (Remember that book?/It's here not Remember that book? It's/here)
  • 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)
  • Keep relative pronouns (that, which, whose etc.) together with the clause they introduce (I didn't know/that the dog was blue not I didn't know that/the dog was blue)
  • Don't separate a pronoun used as the subject of a clause from the verb/component (e.g. I call her up;/she responds not I call her up; she/responds)
  • If at all possible, don't break the line or subtitle after determiners: adjectives, numerals, demonstratives (like this or those), possessives (like his or the dog's) or quantifiers (like some, any, every, a lot of, etc.)
  • 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 usually 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.

Examples of correct line breaking

The examples below show places in a sentence where lines can be broken. The ideal places to break are marked by the green slashes, while the orange slashes indicate places where it would be OK to break the line if breaking at the green slashes were not possible. Note that you don't normally break lines that do not exceed 42 characters; the examples below are simply used to show various grammatical contexts where a sentence can be broken, not to suggest that you should break subtitles into very short lines.

  • "This is a very long,/verbose piece/of prose/that no one knows/and no one/will remember."

Notes: Breaking lines at clause boundaries is usually a good strategy, and commas and conjunctions (like "and") often indicate clause boundaries. The first orange slash breaks up a clause but keeps together a noun+verb combination; "of" is a preposition and the line break should not follow it. The second orange line break separates a subject from the predicate. This is not ideal, but it's better than breaking the line after "will," since if possible, auxiliary verbs should not be separated from other verbs in grammatical constructions.

  • "Mary wants/to go/to the store,/but as far as I know,/all the stores/are closed/on Translation Day."

Notes: The green slashes are again placed at clause boundaries. The first orange slash is there to make sure that the word "to" is not separated from the infinitive, and the second is placed so as not to separate "to" from the noun phrase that the preposition refers to ("the store"). Remember that the orange slashes are various imperfect line-breaking options, and would never be used at the same time to create short lines; the point is, if you have to, you can break the clause after "wants" or after "to go." The third orange slash separates a subject from the predicate, but avoids separating the auxiliary verb ("are") from the participle ("closed"). In other words, line breaks should be placed in ways that don't split up complex grammatical constructions. The last orange slash splits off an adverbial, an expression that tells us something about a sentence or a verb, and thus, can often be put into the next line, as something "extra" that describes the sentence.

  • "I woke up,/jet-lagged,/at 4 in the morning,/in my new bed,/and right away I called/Annie Jayaraman,/to tell her/about my interview."

Notes: The example below contains some commas that are arguably redundant, but sometimes, you can "cheat" a little and add commas in places where part of the sentence can be considered a parenthesis, meaning a word or phrase that is interjected into a sentence to add some context or description, but could be left out without changing the "core" meaning of the sentence. For example, the word "jet-lagged" can be seen as an additional comment about the way the speaker awoke. You can easily break lines at the boundaries of such parentheses or interjections (usually set apart by commas), which is where the green slashes are placed. The orange slash after "called" indicates a line break that splits a verb from its complement or object, which should be used only if other breaks are not available. The second orange slash also separates a verb from its complement, but keeps intact the whole phrase that begins with the preposition "about."

How to make your subtitles 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

Separating parts of different sentences

While transcribing, don't put the end of one sentence and the beginning of another into a single subtitle. Even if the transcript keeps parts of two sentences together, you can fix that in your translation. Examples:

  • Two clauses from different sentences in one subtitle:


which is how I solved this.
And what I also noticed

is that the blue light went on.


which is how I solved this.

And what I also noticed
is that the blue light went on.
  • A small section of the next sentence in the second line:


Somehow, this worked really well
in her garage. When you work

on something big,
you need to accept failure.


Somehow, this worked really well
in her garage.

When you work on something big,
you need to accept failure.

Keeping relative clauses together

Here, we have sentences with relative clauses. If possible without breaking the reading speed and subtitle length limits (and if the subtitles don't have to be synchronized with important action in the video), try to keep the clauses together in one subtitle. Even if the transcript splits the sentence apart, you can fix it in your translation. Examples:


It’s that very interesting book

which I forgot about.

Optimized for translation

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

Keeping clauses unsplit

Sometimes, it's not possible to put one whole sentence into a subtitle (e.g. because of reading speed issues), but it may possible to keep a clause (part of the sentence) in a single subtitle, which is always easier for translation than when it is split. If the transcript splits up a clause, you can create one subtitle with a longer duration in your translation, and merge the little bits of the clause together. Examples:


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.

Capitalize "Black" and Other Racial Identifiers

Capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. When transcribing or translating into English, capitalize a person's race or ethnic identity: e.g., Black, Caucasian, Indigenous. Lowercase the term "white."

Converting units of length and weight

When translating into English, do not convert units into a different system than the one used in the original, e.g. from miles to kilometers or from meters to yards. English is used in various countries, each of which may use the metric system or a non-metric system. Because of this, it is safest to stick with what was used in the original talk.

"Gonna," "wanna," "kinda," "sorta," "gotta," "'cause"

Gonna, wanna, kinda, sorta, gotta and 'cause are ways of pronouncing going to, want to, kind of, sort of, have got to (usually with a contraction, i.e. "I've got to" etc.) and because, respectively. Do not use them in English subtitles. Instead, use the full form (e.g. going to where you hear gonna). The only exception is when the speaker uses these forms purposefully, to affect a certain kind of dialect or idiosyncrasy of speech.

"I got" vs "I've got"

Do not use "got" to mean "have," as in "You got a dog" (to mean "You have a dog"). To express the possessive meaning, use "have got," with "have" always abbreviated (e.g. "You've got a dog"). Without "have," the word "got" is the past of "get," meaning "obtain" ("You got a dog" means "You obtained a dog" or "You were given a dog").

While transcribing, when you hear a speaker use "got" as the equivalent of the possessive "have," add the abbreviated auxiliary verb "have" in your transcription (transcribe "You got a dog" as "You've got a dog").

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 many viewers with a different cultural background may not be able to understand it.

Overusing dashes and ellipses / dots

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 dash 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.

Separate the dash (or rather its hyphen equivalent) from words in the subtitle with a space. Place dashes at the end of a subtitle line, or inside it, never at the beginning of a line.

If you wish to indicate an accidental break in the sentence (the speaker's voice trails off), or an embedded thought or clause, use hyphens. However, indicate the speaker's intentional pauses (for emphasis, effect etc.) by using an ellipsis / dots.

Removing multiple connectors ("and," "so," etc.)

This item relates mostly to English transcripts. Subtitles are meant to represent natural (though relatively correct) speech, so the style should not be cleaned up too much, in order to prevent the subtitles from sounding unnecessarily formal and more like written language than speech. One common example is removing too many sentence-initial "and" and "so." While in written English, starting consecutive sentences with such connectors is often seen as a fault in style ("And it was complete. And I called my friend. And my friend was so surprised!"), in spoken English, such connectors often produce an unbroken stream of related clauses in the lack of formal connectors typical of written English (such as "accordingly," "what is more," etc.). Removing too many may make the subtitles sound disjointed, so leave as many as possible. Connectors may be removed to improve reading-speed issues, of course, and once you have gained a strong sense of how to slightly edit subtitles for clarity, it will be OK for you to remove a few initial and's. When in doubt, leave it in.

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 will be 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.”


  1. Quotation Mark: Typographical considerations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quotation_mark#Punctuation. Retrieved 2013-12-16.