Grammar Bite #4: The misuse of ‘captioned’

21 October 2010


Today we’ll look at a common mistake using the word ‘captioned’.


A little bit of my English ‘history’

When we first moved from the US to Hong Kong in 1988, we had to learn two new forms of English: British English and Hong Kong Chinese English.


The British form was relatively easy to learn – mostly a few differences in vocabulary.


Hong Kong Chinese English, on the other hand, was a bit harder to learn.


Shortly after we arrived, my husband received a letter from the university where he teaches that had one very curious use of English. (Actually, there were several curious uses, but we’ll only talk about one today.)


The first sentence in the letter said something about ‘the captioned matter’. We read and re-read this letter, but we never could figure out what the writer meant by that.


It wasn’t until after we had received many other letters over the following months that we finally figured it out. The writers were talking about the subject line!


Here’s an example, taken from a recent email: Please find attached the draft report for the purpose of the captioned matter for your attention.


In clear English that means: I’ve attached a draft report about [subject].


What ‘captioned’ means

There are two primary meanings of the past participle verb ‘captioned’ and one less common meaning:

1)  to describe a picture or to explain what’s happening in the picture

2)  to put in writing the words that are being spoken on a TV show or movie

3)  to write the heading or title of a chapter, article or page


The noun form is ‘caption’ – and it has the same meanings:

1)  a line of text written under a picture  that describes it or explains what’s happening in it – like this:




Deborah and Zo, summer 2010


2)  the text of what’s being spoken on a TV show or movie, written at the bottom of the screen (frequently a translation – commonly called ‘subtitles’)


3)  the heading or title of a chapter, article or page


A caption is NOT a subject line for a letter or email.


How to correct this mistake

That’s easy! Just stop using the word ‘captioned’ in your emails and letters.


On a related note, please don’t write ‘the above subject’ in the text of a letter or email. If you do this, you force the reader to glance back to the top to see what you’re talking about. That slows them down – not very good ‘customer service’ as a writer.


So for example, if your subject line is this:

Monthly Staff Meeting Details

Your first sentence should say something like this:  

I’d like to give you the details of our monthly staff meeting.

[It should NOT be this: I’d like to give you the details of the above subject.]

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