Grammar Corner: Council vs. Counsel

In this edition of Grammar Corner, we discuss some of the most widely used grammar errors in the English language. We don’t just correct you, though; we pinpoint exactly why a particular word/phrase/idiom is used incorrectly, while providing the context for each mistake, and then providing the right word/phrase/idiom.

Most of the time, a grammar error occurs because of homophones. Homophones are two words that sound exactly the same, but mean vastly different things. But it’s not just their meaning that’s different; homophones can also function as vastly different parts of speech.

In this edition, we discuss a common grammar error: council vs. counsel.

Aside from being homophones, both words also have related meanings; that is, one of them gives advice, while the other is the advice itself. They also have the same etymological roots: The word counsel originated from Middle English via Old French counseil, which itself is derived from Latin consilium which means consultation or advice.

Meanwhile, the word council also originated from Old English, which itself is derived from the Anglo-Norman French word cuncile, which is also derived from a related Latin word that counsel comes from: concilium, which means convocation or assembly.

The confusion can be understanding, so let’s see if we can’t unpack each word’s meaning.

What is the Difference Between Counsel and Council?

Council and counsel both have to do with doling out some form of advice, albeit in a different fashion: counsel is the advice that you give, while council is a group of people who can give advice when they need to.

When to Use Counsel

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In general, counsel is used to describe any kind of instruction, advice, or opinion. However, in law, a counsel is a person’s legal advocate or legal adviser. As a verb, to counsel means to give advice or to advise someone with specific instructions, for example:

“My cousin once counseled me about fishing in the dark, maybe I should have listened” Stephen told me, right before the piranhas devoured our feet.

I counsel you to watch your words carefully, lest this chess match devolve into a duel –Counsel as instruction

“Do you seek my counsel, child?” the Wizard boomed. “Actually, I’m just looking for the nearest 7-11, but yeah, sure, Wizard counsel is always fairly helpful”

The counsel of my parents was essential in my decision to become a full-fledged mushroom forager/folk song composer –Counsel as advice

It is my counsel that you, sir, are an idiot.

Roger Ebert’s counsel on the movie Howard the Duck really allowed me to see it not as a blockbuster failure, but as cinematic genius hiding behind a B-movie façade –Counsel as opinion.

Your Honor, I know that it’s unorthodox, but I would really like it if my great aunt Myrma acted as my legal counsel in this matter –Counsel as legal advisor.

When to Use Council

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Meanwhile, a council is a noun that describes a group of people who are gathered to advise, consult, or even discuss specific topics. Councils usually address legislative or even administrative matters. Council is always a noun; never a verb. For example:

The Council of Elrond set into motion the final defeat of Sauron and was one of the most important meetings in all of Middle-Earth. Also discussed during that time: Hobbitexit.

The City Council deliberated on the matter for only 5 minutes before deciding that Jeff Winsle should not have been allowed to build that Pterodactyl Aviary in his backyard.

What do you mean I can’t bring 15 extra guests to the clubhouse?! I’m a City Councilor, I’ll have you know!

I’ll have to submit this matter to the Homeowner’s Council, Mrs. Jergensen, but I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to walk a silverback Gorilla on the street, even if it was on a leash.

Which One to Use: Counsel or Council?

Probably the easiest way to remember the difference is this: A council can counsel you on your issues. Council is the people giving the counsel, or alternatively, you can think of counsel as something the council gives.

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