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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I have just read the article from Mr. and Mrs. Ellington Mills, of Hot Springs, Ark.,regarding the background music on TV programs that causes the dialogue to be drowned out.

I'm also perturbed by this same annoyance, but have found a solution. May I suggest that they run, not walk, to their TV store and purchase a new television set? I was not aware that approximately three years ago, manufacturers were required to put closed captioning on TV sets to assist the hearing impaired. Not only does this help the hearing impaired, but it also helps the viewer who does not have a hearing problem keep up with the dialogue. It's fabulous! It also helps when the phone rings and the TV must be put on mute, because the closed captioning is still on screen.

While I'm on my soapbox, may I please praise the producers of TV programs and advertisers who use closed captioning. I have made a point to purchase items that are advertised that way.

My wish is that the older films have closed captioning added. It would be appreciated by the millions who use the service. -- WANDA A. FOSTER, FORT SMITH, ARK.

DEAR WANDA FOSTER: I'm sure many readers will appreciate your helpful suggestion. As of July 1, 1993, all television sets 13 inches or larger made or sold in the United States have closed-caption decoders built inside -- a tremendous boon to the more than 20 million people in the United States who suffer from some degree of hearing loss.

But closed captioning can also serve a wider population than the hearing impaired. It's an excellent teaching tool for recent immigrants who are struggling to learn English. The National Captioning Institute claims that a large percentage of caption decoders (which were sold separately before 1993) were purchased by Hispanic and Asian Americans who find it easier to understand new idioms and expressions when they can read and hear them at the same time. It can also be a valuable teaching tool when used regularly in homes where there are children who are reading at or below fourth-grade levels.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about closed caption technology should contact the National Captioning Institute Inc., 1900 Gallows Road, Vienna, Va. 22182. NCI has two toll-free numbers: 1-800-533-9673 for hearing people, and 1-800-950-0958 for deaf and speech-impaired people.

I wouldn't be doing my job, however, if I didn't point out that anyone who's experiencing difficulty hearing their favorite TV programs (or the dialogue in movie theaters) should schedule an appointment with his or her physician for a hearing examination. Special earphones are available for use in homes, theaters and concert halls that clarify sound and greatly reduce this annoying problem.

DEAR ABBY: In response to the letter you printed from a secretary who said she frequently sees "20's," "50's," "80's," etc. written in error, it's not necessarily a mistake. Although such expressions are not possessive or contractions, as she correctly stated, some publications -- most prominently The New York Times -- have adopted the apostrophe as a matter of style.

Some publications choose to spell out the words. The Asbury Park Press, which has published your column for decades, follows the guidelines in "The Associated Press Stylebook," which call for an apostrophe at the beginning of the numerals, as you said '96 necessitates. We write '20s, '50s, '80s and '96. -- WALLY PATRICK, COPY EDITOR, THE ASBURY PARK PRESS, NEPTUNE, N.J.

DEAR WALLY: I received an avalanche of critical letters for my statement concerning apostrophes. Thank you for restoring my self-confidence.

Abby shares more of her favorite, easy-to-prepare recipes. To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby, More Favorite Recipes, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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