Usage Notes

Convening on 'Counsel' and 'Council'

We drop the gavel. Remediation is provided.

What to Know

Counsel is a noun or a verb relating to advice or the act of giving advice. One who gives advice is referred to as a counsellor. The homophone council only has a noun form, and usually refers to groups or committees that decide rules and laws, or provide guidance. Members of a council are councillors but what they engage in is actually counseling.

Readers, before we present our findings on misuse of counsel and council, we would like to share information on the similarities and differences of these similarly spelled words with the same pronunciation. It is believed that doing so will be beneficial to those writers who find themselves seeking counsel when choosing between them. For those who find that they do not need counsel, the information provided will be useful if ever called upon to be a counselor for a confused writer or if appointed to a council on the English language.

lawyer looking over contract

"Now we might just be a simple dictionary publisher from a small city in Massachusetts, but..."

Homophones, Homographs, and Homonyms

Counsel and council are homophones, not homographs or homonyms. Homographs are words that are spelled alike but are different in origin, meaning, or pronunciation (for example, the noun bow for a part of a ship and the noun bow for a weapon are the same in spelling but not pronunciation). Homonyms are words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but are different in meaning (e.g., the noun bear and the verb bear). Counsel and council are homophones (like blue and blew) because they are pronounced alike but have different spellings and meanings. As homophones, they are only confused in writing since they sound the same in speech.

The Meaning of 'Counsel'

Counsel functions as a noun or a verb. As a noun, it is used to refer to advice, instruction, or recommendation provided to someone ("The king sought counsel from his advisors") as well as to a person providing expert or professional advice or services, or specifically to a lawyer representing—and giving advice to—a party in a court of law. Someone who provides counsel, especially personal guidance or instruction, is called a counselor (e.g., a school/camp/marriage counselor), which means the derivative counselor is a synonym of counsel. Less commonly, nominal counsel is used to refer to a person's guarded thoughts or intentions. This sense, which is most often encountered in literary writing, often follows keep. "To keep (one's own) counsel" means to not share your thoughts with others, as exemplified by William Shakespeare's Hamlet's line "The players cannot keep counsel; they'll tell all" or by the English novelist George Eliot when she penned in Middlemarch: "Standish will keep our counsel, and the news will be old before it's known."

The verb counsel suggests the act of giving advice: "The lawyer counseled her client on the plea bargain"; "The professor counsels graduate students in their dissertation work." This fact is helpful when one has to choose between counsel and council when a verb is called for because council does not have a verb form. Evidence of the incorrect verbal council, however, can be found when searching for it, and easily spotted when not sought out:

Homeless and hopeless, Andrews was counciled by an old man who inspired him to change his life.
ABC News, 14 Mary 2009

For the past 34 years they both have supported and counciled people that have an addiction problem and seek a better life.
The Hi-Desert Star (Yucca Valley, California), 25 Feb. 2019

The Meaning of 'Council'

As mentioned, council is only a noun. It is used as a designation for various groups of people who are elected or appointed to make rules, laws, or decisions, or groups that provide advice, guidance, or consultation. It also refers to a meeting by a council. Although frequently used without a modifier, as in "a council on low-income housing," it is equally coupled with one: "city council," "student council," and "security council" are examples. Conversely, it is used attributively (that is, as an adjective) to modify nouns, as in "a council member" or "a council meeting." An elected member of a council is called a councillor; however, councillors do not engage in counciling but rather in counseling.

Examples of Mistaken Usage

Our counseling session on counsel and council is coming to an end. Before we conclude, here are a couple of published quotes using the words incorrectly. We left blank spaces in their place. We trust that you can correctly fill them in.

The 22-year-old donated a kidney to 19-year-old Brenden Harrison. It was not a decision she took lightly. She sought _______ from her parents and others, and in the end felt it was something she should do.
Yes! Weekly, 3 July 2020

The firm formed a _______ for Women, which sponsors leadership programs and networking events.
Forbes, 25 July 2017

Counsel and council are, indeed, confusing words in that they are pronounced the same but spelled differently; another factor is that they are both associated with the act of giving advice. Council is the word for an advisory group or meeting; counsel is the word for advice, an individual giving advice or guidance, or the verb indicating such action. There is not a tried-and-true mnemonic to differentiate these words. Relating committee to the second c in council might help and the verb advise to the s in counsel; however, both words relate to giving advice, advising, which leads to the confusion. Our counsel is to visit the dictionary for advice, counsel.


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