In which scenario which words are suitable ? (there may be some mistakes with prepositions)

The police chief who conducts the investigation thinks that it is likely the security crew was responsible / accountable/liable to/ culpable for the burglary at the bank because they all vanished after the incident. ( criminals)

The police chief who conducts the investigation think that the security crew is responsible /will be held accountable/is liable to/will be held culpable for the burglary at the bank because they did not screen the cctv(s) for a long time at that night..(neglect)

Hi,My name is Marc and I am responsible / accountable/liable for conducting the marketing researches on the project.What will you be in charge of at the company? ( being in charge)

I feel responsible/ accountable/ liable /culpable to save the earth from preventing it further pollution so I decided to buy an eco-friendly electric car. ( feeling guilty )

To cite another example, take the case of the notorious 2001 Enron scandal that led to the bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation. Members of the executive board were indicted for their illegal and unethical actions. CEO Kenneth Lay was one of the people indicted. Lay insisted that Enron's collapse was due to a conspiracy waged by short sellers, rogue executives, and the news media — implying that while he could be held accountable as the CEO and leader of the organization, he was not in any way responsible for the fraud in the company. However, a jury found Lay guilty on six counts of conspiracy and fraud, making the CEO responsible as well as accountable for the downfall of the company.


What did CEO Kenneth Lay try to say by that? Did he imply that "he can express or explain what/how happened now but it was not his idea/ he was not not the one who organized the bribe" ?

  • I suppose Lay was willing to accept criticism for making bad business decisions but did not want to admit to acting illicitly. P.S. I've changed "burglar" to "burglary". A burglar commits burglary.
    – TimR
    Apr 14, 2015 at 13:10

2 Answers 2


"Responsible" is a general term, meaning that a person has some obligation, or deserves some blame. All of the other words could be considered "special cases" of responsibility.

"Liable" means you have a legal responsibility. A court can force you to pay or send you to prison. You could do something that is totally dishonest, evil, and unfair, but if there is no law against it, you can get away with it. You have no legal liability. On the other hand, a court may force you to pay some penalty when you've done nothing morally wrong. Like, if you make an honest mistake on your taxes, you can be forced to pay fines and penalties even though you did not intentionally harm or cheat anyone.

"Culpable" means you are guilty of something, i.e. morally responsible. A dictionary that I just checked said "deserving of blame". This can be used in a legal or non-legal sense. "The police believed George was culpable for the crime." "Mary was just as culpable for the end of her friendship with Susan as Susan was."

"Accountable" means that you have a legal or moral obligation. You may or may not be personally responsible. The president of a company is accountable for everything that goes on in that company, even if he personally didn't do it or didn't even know about it. If, say, someone is embezzling money from the company, even if the president has no part in the theft, probably didn't even know it was going on, he's "accountable" because he's supposed to have procedures in place to prevent that from happening.

In the Enron case, we could quibble over the definitions of the words, and I'm sure we could question exactly what happened. But what the fellow is saying is that what happened was not his fault, that he didn't do anything wrong, but that as CEO of the company he accepts that it was his job to keep the company running and to protect the interests of the employees and shareholders, and he acknowledges that he failed in this. That is, he is denying responsibility for doing any of these bad things, but accepting responsibility for having failed to do anything to stop them. (As I say, all I know about Enron is what I heard on the news, I have no idea if Mr Lay was a total crook or if he got railroaded.)

BTW When using "liable" in this sense, we say "liable for". As in, "The court found Mr Jones liable for damages" or "If you cause an accident, you can be liable for the other person's medical expenses." "Liable to" is used with a different meaning of the word, meaning "likely to". As in, "This is very hot. If you touch it you are liable to get burned."


Going from the most specific to the least specific:

Liable is used with illicit acts.

Culpable is used with illicit or sinful acts.

Accountability is used with harmful acts which might or might not be illicit or sinful.

Responsibility is used with acts of all kinds.

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