A whole lot of reformation

Politicians love to talk about “reform.”

“I think that Governor Bush has articulated a vision that trusts people on all of the key issues, on Social Security reform, on tax reform, on education reform,” Catherine Hanaway of the George W. Bush campaign in Missouri said on CNN in 2000.

“The ethics reform bill we passed yesterday is historic, making this institution more accountable to the American people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in 2008.

And Donald Trump made tax reform, ethics reform, and immigration reform major parts of his campaign and now administration.

That’s a whole lot of reformation. But “reform” carries a lot of connotations, implying that things are going to hell and need to change.

Let’s go to the original Reformation. In the 16th century, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others thought the Catholic Church was going to hell, almost literally, because it kept such a tight hold on the religion. They wanted more reliance on the Bible and less on established Catholic traditions. The resulting movement spun off Lutheranism, Calvinism, and other branches, not without bloodshed.

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Now, let’s say that you act up as a child. Your parents might send you to “reform school” to correct your behavior. Sometimes, “reform school” is an actual correctional institution, otherwise known as a jail or prison. It implies that what you did was very bad, and you must “reform.”

Remember, “reform” literally means “to form again.” It’s a wholesale change, not minor tweaks.

In some cases, politicians really mean that, as in “healthcare reform,” which in the new administration means dumping Obamacare and replacing it with something else. But most of the time, politicians just mean tweaks, not total reformation.

Among the top definitions for “reform” in Merriam-Webster’s are “to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action” and “to induce or cause to abandon evil ways • reform a drunkard.” Even the top definition implies wrongdoing to be corrected: “to put or change into an improved form or condition”; “to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.”

Both The New York Times and Associated Press style guides warn against using “reform” with abandon. The Times says that “reform suggests not just change but improvement. Change or overhaul can be more neutral synonyms in the news columns.”

AP added “reform” to its stylebook in January:

The word is not synonymous with change. It generally implies faults or shortcomings in the subject at hand. Use care in deciding whether reform is the appropriate word or whether a more neutral term is better. Use similar caution with words such as improvement or overhaul.

Hmm. For AP, “overhaul” is not as neutral as it is to the Times.

Their admonishments show how difficult it is to define true “reform.” Implicit in calling for a change to a policy is criticism of the existing policy, a desire to end a bad thing, which seems to be “reform.” A sweeping overhaul of the tax code would be “reform” in most people’s minds, but merely adjusting tax brackets would not be, though it would probably still be called that.

“Reform” is in the eye of the beholder. Remember that the goal is something better, not merely different. If “tax reform” leaves people less money, they won’t see it as an improvement.

Use of “reform,” though, now seems thoroughly idiomatic, meaning most people aren’t reading “change this bad thing” into it. They’re just thinking about it as “change,” whether it’s one that ends up being for the good or for the bad. Still, the overuse of “reform” for every change undercuts its use for major changes.

The best advice is to save “reform” for something that proposes fundamental changes. When the policy comes back from “reform school,” it should be better behaved.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.