The premodifiers 'ethics' and 'ethical' seem to be used interchangeably in the context of

  • 'ethics review' / 'ethical review'
  • 'ethics committee' / 'ethical committee'
  • 'ethics approval' / 'ethical approval' ....

The same seems true for stacked premodifiers:

  • 'ethics review committee' / 'ethical review committee'.

I can't decide which one to use, because I think the first covers the load best whereas the second is used most.

To me, the variant 'ethical committee' means that the committee is ethical in their behaviors and procedures and such, whereas the variant 'ethics committee' would mean a committee that concerns itself with ethics. Which is what the term should indicate.

Likewise, 'ethics review' seems to me to mean the review of something vis-à-vis a certain code of ethical conduct, whereas 'ethical review' seems to mean a review that is in itself ethical. Given that all of these terms are used to mean a committee/review/approval that is concerned with ethics rather than are ethical in and of themselves, I would think that the correct term to choose is 'ethics'. However, the term 'ethical' seems to be used the most.

I would greatly appreciate your help in figuring out what the correct premodifier to use in this context is.

  • 6
    In "ethics committee", the word "ethics" is better described as an attributive noun.
    – Laurel
    Aug 11 at 14:41
  • 4
    I would say that "ethics" is a noun, rather than an adjective, so an "ethics review" is a compound noun, a review of ethics, whereas "ethical" is an adjective and describes how the review is done. Aug 11 at 14:42
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. -- OK, slight refinement: ethics review (or ethics approval) concerns the ethics of something; they are reviewd/approved. An ethical review (or ethical approval) concern the ethical aspect of something (which is not ethics itself), eg a hiring process. If you do an "ethics review of a hiring process" that would be looking at the ethics of that process. An "ethical review" is kind of similar, but looking at the process from an ethical perspective. Very subtle difference. Aug 11 at 15:06
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    Thanks, I'm not a native speaker so unaware of the correct grammatical labels. My questions is about using the correct (compound) word to reflect the actual meaning. @OliverMason: you say that ethical in 'ethical review' describes how the review is done. Should I understand that as meaning that the review is done 'in a ethical way'? If this is so, this may be grammatically correct but does not cover what it's supposed to mean. The term is actually meant to reflect that the thing that is being reviewed is checked for ethical aspects rather than that the process of reviewing is ethical.
    – Johanna
    Aug 11 at 15:13
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    I see 7x as many hits in a Google search for "ethics committee" as I do in a search for "ethical committee" (double quotes included to force the string). With Google ngrams, the ratio is 14 : 1. The default meaning of 'ethical' in my opinion is 'in accordance with accepted norms of behaviour', though only Collins seems to agree, but using the attributive premodifier bars this reading. One could have an ethical (or unethical) ethics review. Aug 11 at 15:16

2 Answers 2


An 'ethics review' tries to measure how closely the ethics in or of any situation measure up to someone's ideals.

An 'ethical review' tries to conduct itself according to someone's ideals, no matter what the situation.


The primary meaning of ethical is "conforming to a code of ethics". So it wouldn't be the premodifier. Instead, use ethics review to refer to a review of actions to determine if they were unethical in any way.

And if the rankings of meanings by lexicographers seem arbitrary, you can look at an Ngram of the past ten years, which show that "ethical review" is flatlining and "ethics review" is on the rise.

  • Dictionaries give other definitions of "ethical" besides that one, so I think that this answer would be stronger if it had more explanation / evidence to support its reasoning. Aug 12 at 3:07
  • 1
    @MarcInManhattan Life is short.
    – TimR
    Aug 12 at 10:13
  • I agree, as I put in a comment, but, of the non-historical online dictionaries, I found only Collins listing this sense first. Aug 12 at 13:57
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    While it is, on this site, OK to incorporate into one's answer something that has already been posted in the comments on the same page, it is customary to acknowledge that by saying something like 'as has already been pointed out in the comments'. If one's answer does not significantly expand on what has been posted in other people's comments, it is customary (although not required) to post it as a wiki-answer. Also, when one's answer essentially confirms what the OP herself has hypothesised, it helps clarity to say so explicitly.
    – jsw29
    Aug 12 at 15:22
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    I suspect that dictionaries that claim to put the most frequently used sense of a word at the top of the list sometimes put what is notionally the primary meaning. Aug 16 at 19:19

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