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Middle English, from Anglo-French refurmer, from Latin reformare, from re- + formare to form, from forma form


  • 1a : to put or change into an improved form or condition
b : to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses
  • 2: to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action
  • 3: to induce or cause to abandon evil ways <reform a drunkard>
  • 4:a : to subject (hydrocarbons) to cracking
b : to produce (as gasoline or gas) by cracking


Reform is generally distinguished from revolution. The latter means basic or radical change; whereas reform may be no more than fine tuning, or at most redressing serious wrongs without altering the fundamentals of the system. Reform seeks to improve the system as it stands, never to overthrow it wholesale. Radicals on the other hand, seek to improve the system, but try to overthrow whether it be the government or a group of people themselves.

During the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, for example, the New Jersey Plan would have reformed the existing constitution, the Articles of Confederation. By contrast, the Virginia Plan proposed to completely rewrite the nation's fundamental charter, and create a new constitution. Virginia's more revolutionary approach prevailed and resulted in the U.S. Constitution.

Likewise today, many reforms are proposed in the United States Congress which aim to improve the system. For example, campaign finance reform would modify the way elections in the United States are financed, but would not change the basic nature of the offices at stake. Rotation in office or term limits would, by contrast, be more revolutionary, in altering basic political connections between incumbents and constituents.

The UK government frequently uses the term "reform" to describe changes to public services, such as the National Health Service. However, these changes are not universally accepted as beneficial.

Developing countries may carry out a wide range of reforms to improve their living standards, often with support from international financial institutions and aid agencies. This can include reforms to macroeconomic policy, the civil service, and public financial management.