I wrote in a question on another SE site

Before I start to reinvent the wheel: is there a consensual way to insert such data into the DB?

To which I got several comments:

I also think you mean "convenient" rather than "consensual". At least I hope you do!

Actually I think you want to say "Is there a consensus about the way to insert such data into the DB"

The way you're using it is really, really off the mark

The comments apparently come from native speakers of English, I am not one myself.

So I checked:

: existing or made by mutual consent without an act of writing // a consensual contract

-- Merriam-Webster

with the willing agreement of all the people involved

-- Cambridge Dictionnary (examples refer only to sex)

involving the agreement of all or most people in a group

-- Longman Dictionnary of Contemporary English (the second example is about sex)

My question

Does the contemporary, everyday meaning of consensual novadays only refers to sexual activities? Can it still be used for "in a way everyone agrees upon" without sounding weird?

  • 1
    I'd use it that way, in context. Make of that what you will. But wouldn't 'agreed' be more idiomatic in your first example? // Dictionaries which are not 'historical' (OED and M-W are historical) claim to list senses in order of current idiomaticity (so orderings change over time). Claiming that they have their orderings wrong needs more support than "It's the way all of us use it". Feb 13, 2021 at 15:06
  • @EdwinAshworth: I do not know, my English is not flexible enough to make that decision :) This is probably an influence of French where consensuel is a very generic word (sex is not the first thing that jumps to mind when using it, but is still in the top 3 :))
    – WoJ
    Feb 13, 2021 at 15:09
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    ...is there a consensual way to insert such data into the DB? my eyebrows would have raised. It sounds patronising. It sounds to me as if you are emphasising your expectation that everyone will have been mature enough to have discussed this at length in a professional atmosphere, and only then have come to a majority decision. This is far too formal: there is a nuance that you are a superior person who expects such things - whereas, the reality is that the method has simply evolved or has instructions. -- Omit "consensual" - you will get your answer.
    – Greybeard
    Feb 13, 2021 at 15:33
  • What @EdwinAshworth said. It would make far more sense to just use agreed / agreement rather than consensus / consensual. But exactly how "weird" the latter would sound is entirely a matter of opinion. Feb 13, 2021 at 16:21
  • 1
    @tchrist: I believe that for someone with such a rep in ELU, it is not that difficult to have a look at what the typical meaning of "contemporary" is. Let's see... merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contemporary, dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/contemporary → I am not sure what is unclear in that word when not decorating it with "... to [someone or something]". EDIT: On top of that, when I now see that you were one of my idols in my Perl times...
    – WoJ
    Feb 14, 2021 at 9:25

2 Answers 2


Going by dictionary definitions, consensual can be used both for something related to consent and for something related to consensus. In contemporary usage it is, however, far more often used in the former sense than in the latter. That explains why many people would perceive the OP's use of this term as odd, even though it is not, strictly speaking, incorrect.

Now, what is the difference between consent and consensus? By etymology, one would expect them to be synonyms, and their dictionary definitions don't bring out a clear difference between them, leaving an impression that they are near synonyms. In actual usage, however, consent to X is typically something that is given by a person who is directly affected by X: a patient gives consent to a surgical intervention, one's sexual partner gives consent to a particular sexual act. The word consent is usually used with an assumption that, in the absence of consent, doing X to somebody would be seriously wrong. Consensus, on the other hand, is a method by which a group of people may reach a decision about something, that may or may not affect them directly. It is an alternative to reaching decisions by a formal vote. The members of a university department, for example, may reach by consensus a decision about some policy that affects their students—in such a scenario, consent would be an unusual word to use, even though, perhaps, not entirely incorrect.

Because consensual is, in actual usage, more strongly associated with consent than with consensus, it is inadvisable to use it interchangeably with by consensus.


Consensual can definitely refer to actions other than sex.

The dictionary definitions make this clear, including no mention of sex in the definitions. If it did not then there would be no need for the word "sex" in "consensual sex". These days there is a lot of discussion about "consensual sex", and most Google hits are in that context. Using the word may create associations with sex in someone's mind. However it is often used in other contexts too - see medical, legal, political and behavioural uses.

As an aside, in the discussion you quote the commenter isn't saying that you are using "consensual" wrong because you are using it in a non-sexual context - he/she is saying you are using it wrong because you are using it to mean "something about which there is a consensus" (i.e. a consensus as to how it should be done), which is not a correct meaning. "Consensual" only means "something that is done with the consent of all parties".

I would rewrite your sentence as

Is there a consensus about how to insert such data into the DB?

  • 2
    [The aside]: I disagree. And so does Collins: 'consensual [adjective]: A consensual approach, view, or decision is one that is based on general agreement among all the members of a group.' A consensual view on the way to insert such data – a consensus as to how it should be done. Feb 13, 2021 at 15:39

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