Nagging doubt

A “nagging doubt’ is a doubt that’s persistent, but not very strong.

Today's story: ESG investing
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Nagging doubt

Today’s English expression is a “nagging doubt.” Before I start, I want to mention that a lot of people use the word “doubt” incorrectly in English, and this is especially true if your first language is Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian. That’s because there is a false cognate. A “duda” in Spanish, at least, can mean a doubt, yes, but it can also simply mean an uncertainty or a question. In English, a “doubt” is a feeling that something is wrong. We use “doubt” to mean a lack of confidence, or you don’t believe something is true, or you think something might not be right.

For example, imagine you’re not sure how index funds work. Imagine you say, “I have some doubts about how index funds work…” and then you ask a question. That is incorrect! You have a question about how index funds work, not a doubt.

But imagine you think something is wrong with the investment. You think maybe something bad is going to happen and you don’t have confidence in it anymore. You can say, “I have some doubts about this investment.” And that would be correct.

A “nagging doubt” is a doubt that’s persistent, but not very strong. You can say you have a “nagging doubt” if you frequently feel like something might go wrong, but for whatever reason you don’t act on it, and the doubt keeps coming back.

You can have nagging doubts around your house. Imagine it rains—hard, but not too much—and imagine you get a little water in your basement. After that, you might have some nagging doubts about the waterproofing in your basement. What will happen when a really big storm comes? You have some doubts: you think something is wrong; you don’t have confidence in that basement. And it’s a nagging doubt if you think about, and then dismiss the thought.

You just decide, it’s not a priority right now and you don’t do anything. And then some storm clouds form overhead, and guess what? That doubt is back. Ah, no, it’s not going to rain too hard, you tell yourself. And the next week, you’re laying in bed thinking about that basement again. This is a nagging doubt. It’s a small feeling of uncertainty or a small feeling that something is wrong. You dismiss the thought, but it’s persistent. It keeps coming back. It’s a nagging doubt.

Parents of teenagers might have nagging doubts. Did you smell cigarette smoke on a jacket that one time? No, it couldn’t be. Wait, could it? I mean, it could be a friend that smokes, yeah. Nothing to worry about. But if his friends smoke, that’s not good either, is it?

You dismiss the thought from your head. You don’t think about it. But then later, you see a plastic wrapper, like what comes on top of a pack of cigarettes. Okay, plastic like that comes on everything. I’m sure it’s nothing. Right? This is a nagging doubt. It’s not an emergency. It’s just a small little voice in your head, saying something might be wrong. You silence the voice once, and again, and again. But the voice comes back. This is a nagging doubt.

I used the term today in our discussion about investing in index funds. I asked you to imagine a scenario in which an individual investor makes a nice return on index funds. But those index funds include a lot of stocks, and nobody is really thinking about whether the companies are doing good or not—the selection of stocks is automatic.

And this investor had a nagging doubt. Yes, the returns were good. But the funds included investments in companies that, let’s just say, were not doing the most good in the world—companies that might have been polluting the environment more than necessary, companies that might have been careless with customer data, that might have lobbied the government for some unsavory things.

And that investor, I asked you to imagine, that investor had some nagging doubts. Yes, the hypothetical investor liked the returns. But the doubt was about how those returns were generated. Was it wrong to make returns from investments in companies that weren’t acting responsibly?

In this situation, the nagging doubt was never an emergency. It was never the highest priority in our imaginary investor’s day. But the doubt never really went away either. And it’s for just that type of investor that ESG funds were designed. These funds can help silence that nagging doubt about whether index fund investments inadvertently funnel money to companies acting badly.

But now, some ESG investors have some nagging doubts of their own. Does ESG investing even work? And can anyone even agree on what all of the parts mean? And remember those people who said that ESG funds can make even more money than traditional investments? Well, I have some nagging doubts about that. And that’s the topic for next week’s lesson.

JR’s song of the week

It’s Thursday, so JR has a song of the week. Here’s the song he picked for today: “Dancing in the Moonlight” by Toploader. This is a remake of a really famous song of the same name from the early 1970s.

The writer, Sherman Kelly, wrote the song after he was attacked by gang members. And he envisioned an alternate world, of peace and celebration of life. And so the lyrics, despite coming from a negative event, are incredibly positive.

And this is a good version, too, by Toploader. “Dancing in the Moonlight” is the song of the week. Thanks, JR!

See you next time!

And that’s all for today’s Plain English. Congratulations on reaching the end of yet another one. As one member said in the video, there are so many! And no matter how many you listen to, you’re doing great, you’re making great progress together with a fantastic community around the world.

We’ll be back on Monday with number 510. See you then.

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Story: ESG investing