In the process of answering this question on ELL, I hit upon something I can't explain.

The sentence in question is:

Who is responsible for leaving the window open?

I think anyone hearing that sentence would think:

  1. A window was opened at some point in the past
  2. Someone had an opportunity and/or obligation to close the window
  3. That person is at fault and will be held accountable for their negligence once identified

I believe the -ing form of “leaving” forms a gerund clause used as the subject, and I came to wonder if it wouldn't be “more correct” (proscriptively, say) to use the perfect aspect:

Who is responsible for having left the window open?

I'm not sure if it matters, but just to be clear:

  1. The speaker is inquiring about a present state of culpability
  2. The events in question are entirely in the past (the window is closed)

I'm forced to ask this as one question because I don't know which part of it is responsible(!) for shaping how the other parts should be. I am very open to reforming the question if someone with an idea of how to make this more focused and useful suggests a change that is supported by others.

  • 'Who is responsible for leaving the window open?' is ambiguous. It can mean 'Who's job is it?' as well as 'Who did it?'. The latter would, as you imply, be the more usual interpretation (there doesn't need to be blame attached), but from pragmatics (it's probably more often used to mean this, including the implication of wrongdoing) rather than syntax. The second variant can only have the 'who did it' meaning. Context and intonation would determine the actual sense. I'd stick with the first variant; it sounds less high-falutin. Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:10
  • I think that this sentence is too ambiguous and can only be answered in context, because it could be asking, 'Who has the responsibility to leave the window open?' If it is an accusation, it would probably be, 'Who was responsible for leaving the window open?'
    – RoDaSm
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 15:27
  • 1
    @Edwin, RoDaSm: Just to be clear, I don't think OP is interested in the "Whose job is it to make sure the window is left open?" interpretation. The issue here is simply a matter of whether in the absence of any further context, one could reasonably infer any likely difference in meaning between using having left or leaving in this specific question. Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 16:39
  • @FF Tyler seems to be asking for a grammatical rule; Cerberus and I pointed out that grammatically, either is acceptable. However, English is primarily about clear communication, and I go outside purely syntactical requirements to select a “more correct” answer from the equally grammatical alternatives. Cerberus has a fair attempt at an overall analysis of such structures (probably doctorate stuff). DID I REALLY WRITE WHO'S! Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 20:30

1 Answer 1


The gerund phrase is the object of the peposition for, not a subject.

A gerund can be either timeless (it can refer to any time in past, present, or future) or refer to a specific time frame. In your example, the timeless gerund leaving the window open works well enough; in who is responsible for leaving the window open, it refers to leaving the window open in general, without referring to a specific time per se.

It is the context, however, that supplies the temporal information: because you are pointing at a window that is now open and was therefore left open in the past by someone, it is clear that you are talking about a "leaving open" that happened in the past. This information is not (and need not be) included in the gerundial phrase itself.

Suppose you, as a teacher, heard a phone ring incessantly in class. You could ask this, while it was still ringing:

Who is responsible for making this noise?

It would refer to the present, but that can only be known because of the context, not because of the gerund itself.

The same applies to infinitives:

I hope to see you soon.

Context points to the future.

I like to kiss horses.

Context suggests to a habit that happens in past, present, and future.

He ceases to impress me.

Context makes it refer to the past.

In some situations, it is desirable or even necessary to explicitly show that the action described by a gerund or infinitive took place in the past; in that case, having done or to have done is used.

Her losing her mind is a terrible thing to observe.

Her having lost her mind is a terrible thing to observe.

Without having, the natural interpretation of the gerundial phrase is for it to be simultaneous: someone is observing the process of her losing her mind as it is going on. This is not necessarily the only interpretation; but, when context allows it, the default is an interpretation simultaneous with the main verb (is a terrible thing to observe). If you add having, you force a perfect interpretation, where the action happened in the past before the main verb; it is already finished and you are observing the result.

In a different context, the same timeless gerund can refer to the past without the need for having:

Her losing her mind is the most terrible thing that happened this year.

The losing has clearly ended, it happened in the past and is no longer going on, and yet no having is needed. You could say her having lost her mind here, just as in your example about the window, but it is not necessary.

  • 1
    In OP's specific context, the act of "leaving/having left" the window open clearly happened in the past, but the state of "being responsible" for that act continues into the present. Which is why it's okay to ask "Who is responsible?", though I can't see it would make any difference if it had been "Who was responsible?". I understand the distinction you make between ongoing/completed acts for other verbs, in other contexts, but I don't see how this leads to possible distinctions for the specific question being queried here. Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 16:49
  • @FumbleFingers: It doesn't? I thought I said having was not necessary in the OP's example. Do I need to make that more clear? Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 1:39
  • Well, I thought the question was supposed to be asking what if any difference in meaning would apply for the specific example. That's certainly what was being discussed in the original comment thread that sparked this post. It seems to me that you're just implying there is no difference, by saying having is "not necessary". Is that right? Or did I miss something? Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 3:09
  • @FumbleFingers: That is correct. If you want, you can make it more explicit? Or should I? I thought it was rather obvious that there was little difference, so I only addressed the phenomenon in general (why don't we always add having when the action is in the pas?). Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 3:17
  • In the question, Tyler seems to be advancing the proposition that using having to form a "compound gerund" somehow affects whether the window is now closed. I don't buy that, but I'm prepared to be convinced there is a possible difference (maybe the "temporal frame of reference" is affected?). Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 13:52

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