Recently, the Senate narrowly passed a bill that would bring big changes to the nation’s tax code. The House is considering similar changes.
Proponents of the legislation have consistently described the changes as “tax reform.” The president, for example, called the Senate bill “tremendous tax reform.”
News organizations such as Fox News and CNN have used the word “reform” in their reporting on the topic. It’s likely that some news organizations are using the phrase “tax reform” in headlines to grab the attention of search engines. Google’s autocomplete feature offers the term like so:
But is “reform” the right word?
Here’s how our friends at Merriam-Webster define it: “To put or change into an improved form or condition” and “to induce or cause to abandon evil ways,” as in a reformed criminal. Synonyms include “correct,” “remedy,” and “rectify.”
So “tax reform” indicates that these changes would repair a broken system and help all taxpayers. But as with any proposal, some people will benefit, but others will not.
“Reform” in this context is a word of spin, expected from the politicians advocating this legislation. They’re entitled to their word choices. But neutral observers should be wary of it.
The Associated Press has taken note of this distinction about “reform.” For its 2017 edition, the AP Stylebook wisely added an entry for the word.
Here is AP’s guidance: “Use care in deciding whether reform is the appropriate word or whether a more neutral term is better.” In its stories on the Senate vote, it called the changes to the tax code an “overhaul.” Merriam-Webster defines that word as a renovation, remake or revision.
As former Los Angeles Times copy editor Henry Fuhrmann has said, the editor’s job is to put the right words in the right order. In this instance, editors in news and nonfiction should make a note of the AP Stylebook’s entry and rectify the improper use of “reform.”