Council vs. Counsel: Commonly Confused Words

How to distinguish between these two homophones

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Council and counsel are homophones, and both words relate to the concept of advice and guidance. However, they do not have identical definitions. Here's how to master the differences between these two words.

How to Use Council

Council is a noun that refers to a group of people who have been chosen to serve in an administrative, legislative, or advisory role. The word most commonly appears in a government context, but there are also town councils and student councils. A council can be any assembly of individuals who have been chosen to lead a certain organization. Members of a council, called councilors, typically make decisions related to the group or organization they serve.

How to Use Counsel

The word counsel can be both a verb and a noun. As a verb, counsel means “to give advice.” As a noun, counsel sometimes refers to a piece of advice or an opinion, often in a legal context. However, the noun form of counsel can also refer to an assembly of people intended to give such advice. A counsel does not have to be elected.

The word counselor comes from counsel. Counselor refers to an advisor or other individual who can offer opinions or guidance, such as a guidance counselor or a marriage counselor.

How to Remember the Difference

A helpful way to distinguish between council and counsel is to think of people involved in a counsel as trying to sell you on their advice or opinion: they are trying to coun-sell you.

To remember that a council signifies an elected leadership group, recall that council has two "c"s, and "c" stands for "city" and "committee."

Examples

  • Meg's father, a town councilor, met with the high school counselor to discuss Meg's college options. Meg's father is an elected member of the town council. The high school counselor is employed by the school to offer advice and opinions about a student’s collegiate prospects.
  • We thanked the lawyers for providing counsel on the matter. Counsel, functioning here as a noun, refers to the legal advice given by a group of lawyers. 
  • They were excited to be elected to the church council based on their vision of the church’s future. Here, council refers to a group of officials elected to help lead and oversee the church, ultimately making decisions that will shape the future of the church.
  • The president discussed financial policy with the economic council members, but kept his own counsel when it came to his personal life. The president consulted a group of people who had been chosen to serve in advisory roles related to his economic policies. However, he kept the details of his personal life to himself and did not seek others' insight.
  • My mother counseled me to apply sunscreen before going to the beach with my fellow student council members. The mother offers advice, or counsels, to her child before the child spends the day with the other members of the organization to which she was elected (the student council).

What About Consul?

The less-used term consul creates another point of confusion when determining which word to use. Consul is a noun that refers to a person who has been appointed to represent a government or state in a foreign country. For example, the U.S. president can appoint a consul to represent U.S. interests in another country.

Unlike council and counsel, which in their noun forms refer to groups of individuals, consul refers to one individual.