Differentiating between homophones is tricky in general, but some pairs at least have completely unrelated definitions: peak and peek, for example, or idle and idol

Such is unfortunately not the case with council and counsel, which both involve advising. So what’s the difference—and how can you keep the terms straight?

Counsel can either be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it’s basically a synonym for advice. If you’re asking someone for advice, you’re seeking their counsel. You can also use counsel as a noun to describe one or more legal advisers. If someone says that you’re entitled to counsel, they most likely mean that you’re allowed a lawyer. If the government appoints a special counsel, they’ve tasked a lawyer with investigating a certain matter. In short, if you’re talking about lawyers, the word you (probably) want is counsel. Try to remember that lawyer and counsel both have an e.

As a verb, counsel essentially means “to give advice.” You can counsel your friend to take the road less traveled. Someone who counsels students about what classes to take is a guidance counselor.

What you can’t do is council someone—because council can only ever be a noun, never a verb. A council is a group of people (councilors) who convene for any given purpose. The general purpose of city councils and student councils, for instance, is to make decisions about how their communities should function. In The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the Council of Elrond assembles for one very specific purpose: to decide what to do with the One Ring.

Yes, councils often give counsel—but if you’re talking about the group of people itself, the word you want is council. Try to remember other words containing “cil” that council proceedings so often involve: People vacillate back and forth between one course of action and another, and two factions may have to reconcile their conflicting opinions in order to reach consensus. Maybe you pass out pencils so people can vote on an issue; maybe the meeting takes so long that you decide to order lunch, and a couple councilors ask for no cilantro in the guacamole.

Have you got a Big Question you’d like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at [email protected].

Ellen Gutoskey

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