I know "accountable", "responsible" and "answerable" are used in the following way in English,

The engineering team is accountable for this failure of the system.

The terrorists are responsible for this attack to the train station.

He is answerable for the accident.

But I have a confusion that I'm not sure if those words imply that people who are responsible are one of the causes of the problems and deserve punishment, i.e., blameable ? I am confused because in my mother language (Chinese) we distinguish two cases,

The first case is, someone held the duty of doing a job and he did it as best as he could. Unfortunately something bad happened which was impossible to be stopped (e.g. blackout of the whole city and backup power didn't work for no reason). In this case, the investigators of the problem think he was in charge of the job and should give his explanation (be accountable ?) to the problem to help identify the cause. If the investigators determined, after necessary examinations and questions, that the problem was indeed caused by something impossible to stop, then we think he should not be blamed. It is a tragedy but no one should be blamed.

The other case is that it is for sure that someone did something bad accidentally or on purpose to cause the problem, then he is blamable.

So my question is whether the words "accountable", "responsible" and "answerable" can tell the difference between the two cases ? If not, how can we use English to distinguish the difference ?

Can we say "He is accountable for this accident but not blamable", or "He was involved in the accident but not accountable/responsible/answerable for it" ?

  • Are you asking about the difference between accountable and responsible, or about the difference between accountable and blamable, or whether accountable sometimes also means blamable and sometimes not? Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 20:25
  • @NickGammon I thought "responsible", "accountable" and "answerable" have the same meaning, in that someone who is "responsible" should be blamed. The answer by TRomano tells me that I am wrong with the meaning of these words. I also want to know whether there are words which can express the case where someone is involved in the problem but should not be blamed.
    – Hua
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 7:23

1 Answer 1


If they are responsible for something that happened, they did it or allowed it to happen.

If they are accountable, they are the ones who must justify or defend their decisions and actions, or their failing to act. There may or may not be punishment, depending upon how well the accountable acquit themselves.

If they are answerable, they will have to answer for it, and usually this implies suffering punishment or retribution.

  • 1
    By blamable I mean as you said he did something wrong so that the problem happened, and then he deserved the punishment.
    – Hua
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 11:26
  • 2
    "*Something wrong" is an extremely vague and encompassing expression, and not everything that falls into that broad category is punishable or deserving of punishment. What do you have in mind? A misdemeanor? A felony? A breach of personal trust? A breach of public trust? An infidelity? A sin? Eating the last cookie? A war-crime?
    – TimR
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 11:31
  • 1
    You also have to pay attention to the preposition used with the verb: answerable for and answerable to mean very different things.
    – TimR
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 11:35
  • 2
    "If they are responsible for something that happened, they did it or allowed it to happen." I disagree. You can be ultimately responsible for something merely by being in a figurehead position of authority over those who were, even though in practice you had no control over the goings-on whatsoever. Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 11:51
  • 1
    Lightness: Not quite precise enough in your expression of the idea. That person might be held responsible, but they are not responsible for something over which they have no control whatsoever.
    – TimR
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 12:01

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