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The purpose of a caption is always to clarify the meaning of an image. For example, within the context of a scholarly paper, a caption is often used to explain what is represented in the data of a chart of graph. The title of a photograph or painting can also serve as a caption, insofar as it tells the viewer what the image is about. This can be especially valuable in more abstract works of art.

Caption - A clear definition

Would you like to know more about what a caption is? This seems to be one of those straightforward words whose meaning seems obvious, until one actually begins to consciously think about it. Essentially, a caption is a piece of text that accompanies a visual image. This can be very useful because without a caption, the reader or viewer may not clearly understand what the point of a given image is, or what the image is trying to represent.   

Rules and uses

For your reference, here are a couple examples of the term caption being used in sentences. 

  • "The image accompanying the poem was relatively vague; and until the reader saw the caption, he had trouble understanding what it was doing there."
  • "The decision was made to include a closed caption stream of text with the television program so that a deaf viewer would still be able to follow along with the broadcast." 
  • "The graph presented in the scholarly report made no sense: it could have referred to anything,  because the writer had failed to include a caption."

In case you still need further clarification about how to use the term caption, here are a couple simple rules. 

1. If a text is called a caption, this implies that the text is subordinate to the image it accompanies. The image is the main point, and the text is just there to help the viewer understand what the image means or represents. If the text has the same status or importance as the image, then it would no longer really be appropriate to call that text a caption. 

2. Generally speaking, there are only a few specific kinds of situations when the term caption is used. One is when there is a photograph or painting accompanied by a few words just explaining what is being represented. In this case, the title of the work itself is often a caption. Another kind of situation is when a graph or chart is included in a report. In this case, the caption tells the reader what the information represents.   

Use in literature

The literary term caption calls attention to the inherent limitations of a strictly visual representation of information, and the essential role of language in clarifying and communicating meaning. For example, if a person looks at a painting of a field, then the person may just see a field and think about whatever associations this evokes in his memory. If the painting had a caption, though, then this would direct the viewer's mind toward a far more specific interpretation of what he is seeing. In an important sense, the entire meaning of the visual work would change because of the caption.

A caption may thus be especially useful if a visual work of art is relatively abstract, or if the viewer may otherwise have difficulty trying to understand what the artist was trying to do. The artist Duchamp, for example, produced works that were just as much visual as they were conceptual; and without titles or some other form of caption, it would be almost impossible for the average viewer to get a clear idea of the meaning of the work. In any event, this is a good example of what the caption always does: it clarifies the meaning of a visual image.

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