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Why are organizations that provide psychological help called “counselling services”, while those that provide legal, medical, or financial services called “consulting services”?

Is “A consults B” equal to “B counsels A”?

  • Can equal be a verb? – Tim Nov 4 '13 at 15:46
  • Yes, but not if you write “[...]equal to[...]”. Feel free to change it to “Does ‘A consults B’ equal ‘B counsels A’” if you feel that better captures your meaning, it just wasn't correct in its original in-between form. – Tyler James Young Nov 4 '13 at 16:40
  • Have you tried looking counsel and consult up in a dictionary? What does it say? Please add more detail to your question. – Matt Nov 4 '13 at 16:53
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The various forms of consult and counsel are derived via French from Latin consulo (consulere, consului, consultum). This word in itself carries conflicting meanings— asking for advice, receiving it, reflecting on it— and so it should be no surprise that the English derivatives have multiple usages, some of which are antonyms but others which are not.

In particular, the noun forms counselling and consulting refer to specific professional practices, beyond providing counsel or being consulted. After all, I can profess my fondness for music, but that does not make me a professor; I can account for all my golf clubs, but I am not performing accounting (or accountancy).

Counselling (BrE) / counseling (AmE) is idiomatically identified with

the provision of professional assistance and guidance in resolving personal or psychological problems

(emphasis added), perhaps because of common association. Similarly, therapy on its own will be intrepreted as psychotherapy or psychological therapy; one specifies physical therapy if undergoing an exercise regimen for muscles and joints rather than feelings and relationships.

Consulting is

the business of giving expert advice to other professionals

The "short" answer to your first question, then, is that counselling has become closely identified with advice given to individuals (whether alone or in groups) to assist with their emotional problems, whereas consulting is sought to address problems in a business or professional practice or process.

These usages color the use of counsel and consult as verbs. Generically, they mean simply to give advice and to seek advice respectively. To say she is counselling him without other context, however, will usually be interpreted as saying she is offering psychological or emotional guidance. And confusingly, especially in American usage, to consult can mean to be employed as a consultant— and thus to be giving rather than requesting advice: He consults for Accenture; She consults at the World Bank.

The noun forms counsel and consultation (sometimes abbreviated to consult) also have specific usages that can overshadow their generic ones. We can also speak of taking your mother's counsel or working in consultation with our partners. But counsel, thanks to television courtroom procedurals, can be taken as legal counsel, meaning either your lawyer or to the advice they officially provide. A consultation is the time a professional takes to evaluate your case, as when you first meet your lawyer or doctor about a particular issue: set up an appointment for your consultation.


As to your second question, yes, equal can be used as a verb, meaning either to be equal or to make equal. But unless dealing with numerical quantities, I think a native speaker would more likely ask if something is the same as another, or whether it is equivalent to or is equal to as you have done.

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