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Supplement 2: Basic Braille

The purpose of this chapter is to introduce some of the basic vocabulary of braille, especially braille format. If you are familiar with braille (and the terminology to describe braille), feel free to skip this chapter.

If you really want to learn the full rules for braille translation and braille format, we refer you to one of the transcribing manuals available from the National Library Service or from the American Printing House for the Blind.

Braille and Braille Translation

Braille is a system of reading and writing for blind individuals. The basic unit of braille is the braille cell. It is composed of six dots: the upper left dot is dot 1, the middle left dot is dot 2, the lower left dot is dot 3, the upper right dot is dot 4, the middle right dot is dot 5, and the lower right dot is dot 6. From these six dots you can get 64 possible combinations.

There are many more inkprint symbols than the 64 braille symbols. For example, most computer systems handle about 96 different inkprint symbols. Braille can show a wide number of different inkprint symbols by using one or more braille cells for each inkprint symbol.

Braille only has one set of letters. By itself, a braille letter is assumed to be in lower case. To show an uppercase letter, put the capitalization indicator (dot 6) in front of a braille letter. To show an uppercase word, you put two capitalization indicators in front of the word. The number sign (used to indicate a number) is dots 3-4-5-6. This symbol comes just before the number.

An important thing to realize about braille is that you cannot write the dot patterns smaller or larger. An 11-1/2 by 11 inch piece of braille paper contains about 900 braille cells. The raised dots cause braille volumes to be much bulkier than inkprint.

To reduce the bulkiness of braille there is a system of braille contractions, or abbreviations. A braille contraction is a combination of one or more cells used to shorten the length of a word. For example, to write the word mother, you would use a two-cell contraction rather than spelling out the word mother. Just because a contraction can be used does not mean it should be used. The word chemotherapy contains the sequence mother. MegaDots is smart enough to know not to use the contraction for mother in chemotherapy (most of the braille rules are based on pronunciation; you do use the mother contraction in smother, since this is pronounced like mother).

In braille, if you have the letter d with a space or punctuation on either side, the d stands for the word do. To show you really mean the isolated letter d, precede it with a braille cell called the letter sign, dots 5-6. This alerts the braille reader to the fact that the next letter is to be read as a letter of the alphabet rather than an abbreviation.

To get a list of contractions, type F10 H B to get the Braille Intro screen. This screen has its limitations, it does not tell you when you can or cannot apply these contractions. For this information you need a transcriber manual.

Decoding braille by comparing inkprint and braille sequences can be tricky. The words to, into, and by are jammed up against the next word in braille. The words a, the, for, of, and, and with in braille are single cells which can be jammed up against each other. For example, with is a single cell with spaces on either side, but with the comes out as two cells jammed together. Numbers use the number sign followed by the letters a-j (312 comes out as #cab). One braille cell means dis if it shows up in the beginning of a word, means dd if it shows up in the middle of a word, and means a period if it shows up at the end of a word.

There are several grades of braille. Grade I braille does not contain any contractions (abbreviations), but it does represent capitalization, numbers, and punctuation with the correct braille symbols. Grade I braille is used only for specialized applications where the braille contractions might be confusing, such as in spelling lists. Grade II braille is the most commonly used in North America. It not only represents capitalization, numbers, and punctuation marks with the proper symbols, but it uses the various contractions.

Braille Format

Another component of braille is format. When material is laid out on paper for the sighted reader, it is done so for visual effect. The reader is attracted to what is pleasing to the eye. However, in braille the object is maximization of space. Due to the bulkiness of braille volumes, you want to put as much material as possible on the page, while at the same time maintaining readability.

According to the Library of Congress, which oversees standards and trains braille transcribers for braille production in North America, there are certain criteria for the output page. A page of braille contains a maximum of about 40 characters per line and 25 lines per page. For normal literary format (style sheet LITERARY) the braille page number appears at the upper right-hand corner of each page. However, you may need to change these values according to the specifications of your brailler. For example, the Braille Blazer has a maximum carriage width of 34. Note to British users: usually every document is created with the BRITISH style sheet.

Because of the physical (rather than visual) nature of braille, format standards are especially important. Small differences in where text is placed on the page can tell the braille reader a lot about what they are reading. In any braille format, with or without MegaDots, certain elements are especially crucial components of page layout. These include treatment of indent and runover, braille page numbers, inkprint page indicators, and running heads.

One of the major differences between braille and print format pertains to paragraphs. Rather than having an indent of five spaces, braille paragraphs have a two cell indent. The first character of the paragraph begins in cell three. There are no blank lines between paragraphs. Except in special circumstances, you do not put two or more spaces in a row in braille. Thus only one space is used between sentences.

When material is underlined or emphasized in print, there are different ways of indicating it. In braille there are italics marks which indicate something is being emphasized. A special symbol of dots 4-6 is placed before each word to be emphasized if there are three or fewer words in a row. If four or more words are emphasized, a double italics sign (dots 4-6, dots 4-6) is placed before the first word. A single italics sign (dots 4-6) is placed in front of the last emphasized word. Please note that you do not show all uses of inkprint emphasis in braille. Emphasis is only used in headings when it is necessary to preserve the distinctions shown in inkprint.

Indent and Runover

Instructions for braille transcribing often say indent to cell #. The farthest left position in which a cell may appear is cell 1. The farthest right position ranges from cell 30 to cell 40, depending on the carriage width of your brailler.

The placement of the first cell in a paragraph is called the indent. When transcribing instructions say, Indent to cell 3, put the first cell of that segment in cell 3, regardless of where the preceding line began. The position at which all subsequent lines of the same segment begin is the runover. When instructions say, Runover to cell 1, begin all subsequent lines of that segment in cell 1. If instructions say, Indent to cell 7, runover to cell 5, begin the first line of that segment of text in cell 7, and all subsequent lines in cell 5.

Sometimes, the indent is a smaller number than the runover, as in, Indent to cell 1, runover to cell 5. In print, this is called outdenting, or a hanging indent. In braille, the position of the first cell of a segment of text is always called the indent, regardless of whether it is to the left or the right of the remaining text.

Another common braille instruction is block, as in, Block to cell 5. This simply means that the indent and the runover are equal to each other. It is the same as saying, Indent to cell 5, runover to cell 5.


There are three kinds of headings in braille: major headings, minor headings, and paragraph headings.

A major heading is centered, with a blank line before the heading, and a blank line after it. Some braille groups do not put a blank line after a major heading. Technically, this is a violation of the rules for braille.

A minor heading is blocked to cell five. This means that the heading starts on the fifth cell of the line. Any runover also starts on the fifth cell of the line. Usually, there is a skipped line before a minor heading, but not after a minor heading.

A paragraph heading is a line or phrase in italics (or some other emphasis) that labels a paragraph and is immediately followed by text on the same line. If this is done in inkprint, do the same in braille, using italics.

Braille rules require that there be at least one line of body text after a heading or headings on the same page. If there is not enough room on the page for the heading(s) and a line of body text, then the heading(s) need to be postponed to the top of the next braille page.

Before you start a braille project, you need to structure the document. You need to analyze how many levels of headings there are. You need to decide which of these should be done as a major heading, and which should be done as a minor heading.

Braille Page Numbers

As in print, each physical page in a braille volume is given a sequential page number. This braille page number merely orders the pages in the book. It does not provide the reader with any information about the pagination of the inkprint original. The braille page numbers appear in different spots in different formats.

Print Page Indicators

Many braille formats consider the braille reader's need to know where each inkprint page begins. When required, inkprint page indicators appear in addition to the sequential braille page numbers. Textbooks are one instance where this information is essential. With it, the braille reader can follow class discussion, locate homework assignments, and generally keep up with the users of the inkprint original.

A single print page usually occupies several braille pages. For example, if inkprint page 87 is found on three braille pages, then these are marked with inkprint page indicators 87, a87, and b87.

Inkprint page indicators are also extremely useful when transcribing anything that has a table of contents or an index. When inkprint page indicators are not included on the braille page, indexes and such must be completely rewritten to refer to the braille page numbers. When inkprint page indicators are included, then page numbers may be transcribed exactly as they appear in print.

Running Heads

Many braille formats require that the title of the work being transcribed appear on the first line of every page, with an appropriate page number. When the title is too long to fit on one line, it is abbreviated. The running head never uses more than one line.

Literary vs. Textbook Format

Note to British users: usually every document is created with the BRITISH style sheet. Thus you do not need to worry about the selection of the proper style sheet. Ignore this section is you are using British Braille.

Whenever you begin a new transcribing project, with or without MegaDots, there is some planning to do before you start data entry. There are a number of things to look for in the first scan through the book: Check to see if there are a large number of foreign words, a table of contents or index, and graphs or pictures in the book.

One of the first things you must decide is whether to use textbook or literary format. Sometimes, the agency that assigns the transcribing job makes this decision for you. Here are some guidelines for when you have to decide yourself. Textbook format uses inkprint page indicators; literary format does not. When there is any possibility that the braille reader needs inkprint page indicators, use textbook format. Both formats may be used with or without running heads. Textbook and literary formats are also different from each other in the way they handle preliminary pages, indexes, and certain special cases such as tables and graphs.

In general, literary format allows the transcriber a certain amount of latitude. The overriding concern of textbook format is to represent things in braille EXACTLY as they appear in print. Anything added or omitted in the transcribing process must be explained in a transcriber's note.

Literary Format

In literary format without a running head, text appears on every line of the braille page. The braille page number appears in the rightmost cells of the first line, with at least three blank cells before the number. Text on the first line must break to allow room for this.

Literary format with a running head has text on lines 2 through 25. Line 1 begins with at least three blank cells, followed by the running head, at least three more blank cells, and the braille page number.

Textbook Format

The major difference between textbook and literary formats in the main body of text is inkprint page indicators. Textbook format has them; literary format doesn't. For textbook format with no running head, text appears on every line. On line 1, the inkprint page indicator appears in the rightmost cells with at least three blank cells before it. The braille page number appears in the rightmost cells of the last line on the page. Again, at least three blank cells are placed before the braille page number.

Textbook format with a running head has text on lines 2 through 25. Line 1 begins with at least three blank cells, followed by the running head, at least three more blank cells, and the inkprint page indicator. Line 25 breaks the text to allow room for three blank cells and the braille page number at the end of the line.