The Difference Between Council and Counsel

A graphic of a woman with her hands up in a quizzical pose with the words "Council or Counsel" to the left.

Council vs. Counsel

Let’s take a look at council vs. counsel.  First, the quick answer:

  • A council is a meeting or a group of people meeting to discuss laws or rules.
  • Counsel refers to advice given or a person who gives legal or professional advice.
  • To counsel someone means you are giving advice.

They sound identical, so we’ve convened a council to counsel you on the difference between the two.  

Council and counsel are confusing homophones. They sound alike, are spelled differently, and have divergent meanings. One may evennremember our 45th president mistakenly tweeting “W.H. Council” instead of “W.H. Counsel.”

Other homophones include bare and bear; they sound alike but are spelled differently. As homophones, the most common errors appear in writing since they sound the same when speaking. 

What does council mean? 

A council is a noun that means a group of people who are elected or appointed to make decisions, laws, or rules. It also refers to the meeting of a council. 

Correct  The city council met to determine property tax rates. 
Correct After you submit your proposal, please contact the regional council

 

“Shortly before the meeting the council issued a statement expressing “grave concern at the continued fighting in and around Debaltseve” and demanded that all parties to the conflict cease hostilities immediately.”The Guardian, 2015

Council can also modify a noun, which makes it an adjective. You can use the word council to describe it. 

For instance, a council member, council meeting, or council decision.

Correct  The council member left early to avoid reporters. 
Correct The council decision is final and binding. 

 

“Brian Messenger, a Tory council candidate in Margate, said his party had received complaints of verbal intimidation of voters outside some polling stations.”The Guardian, 2015.

What does counsel mean?

The word counsel has several definitions depending on the part of speech. Counsel functions as either a noun or a verb. 

Counsel as a noun

As a noun, counsel refers to advice, instruction, or recommendation to someone. For example, the President sought counsel from his advisors.   

Brushstroke’s wine and sake list offers a great deal to go along with this food, at least if you seek the counsel of Seju Yang, the restaurant’s puckish young sommelier.”The New York Times, 2011

Also, as a noun, counsel refers to a person providing expert advice or services. For instance, in the courtroom, a lawyer representing someone and giving legal advice is a person’s counsel. 

When Facebook’s published its requests data, the general counsel, Ted Ullyot, wrote: “We aggressively protect our users’ data when confronted with such requests: we frequently reject such requests outright, or require the government to substantially scale down its requests, or simply give the government much less data than it has requested.,”The Guardian, 2013

Correct I should have listened to the counsel of my priest. 
Correct Counsel, what does your client plead? 

 

Different uses of counsel

There is another less common use of the word counsel and it refers to keeping thoughts guarded or hidden from view. Legendary wordsmith Bill Shakespeare’s play Hamlet highlights the less common use of the word: 

“We shall know by this fellow. The players cannot keep counsel, they’ll tell all.”Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

Avoid the crowd, avoid mass audiences, keep your own counsel, which is the counsel of philosophy–of wisdom you can acquire and make your own.”The Art of Life, Zygmunt Bauman

Someone who gives expert advice or guidance is called a counselor. When you were in school, you may have worked with a school counselor to determine your schedule. If you’ve ever been to a summer camp, it was run by a camp counselor. 

Sturdivant received the “Asa Sparks New Counselor of the Year Award.” “This is indeed my first year as a school counselor, and it has been wonderful so far,” she said about working at Columbia Elementary School.”The Madison County Record, 2022. 

Counsel as a verb

As a verb, the word counsel means to give advice. That same lawyer who is your counsel also provides counsel when giving you legal advice. In other words, the lawyer counseled you to the letter of the law. 

Correct  The tax advisors counsel me on payment plans.
Correct My parents counsel me daily on the benefits of investing while I was young.

A graphic showing a group of people on the left side with the definition of the word "Council" as "meeting or a group of people meeting to discuss laws or rules" while on the right hand a graphic of a person speaking with another person with the definition of the word "counsel" as "advice given or a person who gives legal or professional advice"

The takeaway

Council vs. counsel is confusing since both words are pronounced the same but spelled differently. They’re homophones (blue and blew; harry and hairy). Another thing that trips people up is that they both have to do with advice:

  • Council is the word for a group of advisors or meeting.
  • Counsel is the word for advice.

The fact that counsel has a verb form while council does not should make it easier for you when choosing between counsel and council. Another way to remember the difference is think of counsel as someone trying to “sell” you their opinion and advice. They would like to counsel you.  

Further reading:

Uncharted vs. Unchartered

Biannually vs Biennially

Advice vs. Advise

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