• Responsible for something undesirable or harmful due to error or transgression; at fault; guilty of a criminal or immoral act


Imagine that you're driving down the street. Rolling toward a red light, your foot is on the break, but you're not one hundred percent paying attention. The radio is on, your sunglasses need adjusting, hey, what kind of bird is that - thunk. You've rear-ended the car in front of you, and, honestly, you can't blame the lady getting out for looking ticked. Your distracted driving has made you culpable for the broken taillights on that Lexus.

Okay, relax - we know that picture was vivid, but you're not really on the hook for higher insurance costs. If you were, though, it'd be because you were culpable, an adjective that characterizes someone as worthy of censure or responsible for something bad that's happened. If you're culpable, you're part of the problem, if not guilty of causing an entire fiasco yourself. The word is always used to attribute liability for something negative; it wouldn't make much sense to say that someone is culpable for something like saving a baby from a burning building. Interestingly, culpable also usually implies that a person is at fault due to poor judgement or a mistake in conduct rather than some kind of inherent personality flaw. Although this convention is far from absolute, if you find yourself culpable in something, it's more likely because of something you did than who you are.

Culpable is most commonly used in situations where someone acts criminally, somehow harming other people or their property. These run the gamut from child abuse to fender-benders to jay-walking - if you played a role in breaking the law, then you're culpable of wrongdoing. In fact, the word is especially common in legal language, where it's used to describe those who are responsible for injury or damages to a plaintiff (and thus able to be sued or jailed). It's most commonly used in the phrases culpable homicide (used when someone is intentionally responsible for the death of another) and culpable negligence (used when someone puts another's life or wellbeing in danger as a result of carelessness). You can also be culpable of a moral transgression, sin, or more casual breach of decorum - for instance, you could be culpable of lying about your height on your online dating profile.

Before we become culpable of letting this get too long, we'll leave you with a note on syntax. Culpable is most frequently used in front of a prepositional phrase headed by "for," "in," or, "of." You're culpable of or for doing something, and you're culpable in a situation that you were involved with. Culpable can also stand alone in a sentence, although often in such cases it will sit near a prepositional phrase.

Example: Found culpable of throwing garbage in the creek, the litterbug was hit with a hefty fine.

Example: The man driving the getaway car was just as culpable in the burglary as the two who actually broke into the store.

Example: The principal knew immediately who was culpable for pulling the fire extinguisher.

Example: Although everyone on the team played badly, the starting pitcher was deemed most culpable for the loss.


Culpable's earliest ancestor is thought to be the Latin word culpa, a noun meaning "guilt, blunder, or responsibility for something injurious." Culpa would serve as the root for the Latin verb culpare ("to find at fault; blame) and adjective culpabilis ("responsible, at fault"), the latter of which would be adopted with the same meaning by the French as coupable. English would appropriate coupable sometime during the late 1200s; over the succeeding few hundred years, the u would be changed back to an l to form the culpable we know and love today.

Derivative Words

Culpably: This adverb describes a verb, adjective, or other adverb as related to or betraying blame or responsibility.

Example: Spotting a shady figure culpably running down the street with a large sack over his shoulder, the policeman decided to investigate.

Example: Stopped by the policeman, the shady figure with the large sack over his shoulder seemed culpably nervous.

Culpability: Analogous to "Responsibility" and "Blameworthiness," culpability is a noun that describes the condition of guilt or fault.

Example: The cheating student's inept lying made his culpability obvious.

Inculpable: Inculpable is simply the negative form of culpable; it describes someone as innocent or not at fault.

Example: I walked out of the courtroom with a bouncing gait, elated to have been found inculpable in every way.

Inculpate: An interesting word all by itself, inculpate describes the action of blaming someone for wrongdoing or charging someone with a crime. Inculpate is conjugated as inculpates, inculpating, and inculpated.

Example: I couldn't believe my neighbor would inculpate me for stomping on her flowers - I happen to love tulips!

Inculpation: This noun describes the state of being accused of a crime.

Example: Offended by my neighbor's inculpation of me, I wished I really could stomp all over her flowers.

Inculpatory: This adjective characterizes a noun as incriminating or assigning blame. In legal settings, it is often used in the phrase inculpatory evidence, which refers to those findings that indicate a defendant's guilt.

Example: Inculpatory footprints in the mud revealed the raccoon's presence.

Exculpate: The opposite of inculpate, to exculpate is to acquit someone or to make someone free of blame. Exculpate is conjugated as exculpates, exculpating, and exculpated.

Example: Although she had initially forgotten her husband's birthday, Cora hoped that a hastily bought gift card would exculpate her.

Exculpation: This noun describes the state of being exonerated.

Example: Her husband loved the gift card, and Cora felt the relief of exculpation.

Exculpatory: This adjective characterizes a noun as freeing someone from blame. In legal settings, it is often used in the phrase exculpatory evidence, which refers to those findings that indicate a defendant's innocence.

Example: Although he had thought it cleverly crafted, the student's excuse for his incomplete homework did not prove exculpatory.

Similar Words

You may have heard of the phrase mea culpa, especially if you follow politics or watch crime dramas on TV. A mea culpa is an admission of guilt; it's essentially a statement of your own culpability. Just like culpable, mea culpa is formed in part from the Latin word for guilt, culpa. Also formed from this root is the very familiar culprit, which refers to someone who is, well, culpable.

In Literature

From Victor Hugo's Les Misérables:

"Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness."

Here, the Bishop of Digne uses culpable to blame society for the evil that develops in men and women. Society is culpable, he says, and not the sinners themselves, because it stunts the moral growth of many by limiting their access to education.


  • Culpable is capable of being blamed


Law, Crime, Morality, Blame

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of culpable. Did you use culpable in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.