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How to discuss index and portfolio returns: My case against synonyms for “return”

How many ways can you say “returned” when writing about indexes and portfolios? This question seems to eat at many investment and marketing professionals.

I’m delighted that writers of market and portfolio performance commentary seek to make their writing more lively for their readers. I know that’s why they’re asking about synonyms for the verb “return.” However, they have hit one of my hot buttons. Please, please, please stop using gazillion synonyms for “return,” “rise,” and “fall” when you write dense paragraphs.

Why do I say this? When you read a dense paragraph or report with many return numbers, it becomes hard to absorb them if your brain also has to interpret the different words representing “return.” For example, you have to decide “Is ‘delivered’ positive or negative?” or you must recognize that 5% is positive when it follows “gained,” but negative when it follows “fell.” Sure, it’s not brain surgery. However, it slows your readers.

Please take the test below.

Which of the following is easier to understand?

If you’re skimming or reading in a hurry, like so many of us, which of the following sentences can you understand more quickly?

  1. The S&P 500 returned 2.9% vs. -1.3% for EAFE.
  2. The S&P 500 was up 2.9%, while EAFE was down 1.3%.

I am such a strong believer in #1, that I’m posting a poll where you can answer this question. Let’s see what people say. The poll offers a “comment” box if you’d like to opine on this topic.

My suggestions for return-heavy paragraphs

1. Stick with the verb “return.”

2. If you’re comparing two numbers, put the numbers close together for easier comprehension. In other words, “The S&P 500 returned 2.9% vs. -1.3% for EAFE” instead of “The S&P 500 returned 2.9% and EAFE returned -1.3%.”

3. When reporting more than two returns, consider using a table or graph. It’s easier to scan data arranged neatly in columns than in a long, long sentence. You can still refer to the returns in your text, along with a suggestion to “See the table of index returns.”

4. Present returns in a logical order. For example, give all stock index returns first, followed by all bond index returns. Or, all U.S. index returns, followed by developed country and then emerging market returns.

When “return” synonyms are okay

I am happiest to see synonyms for “return” when a paragraph is devoted to a single index. For example, “The S&P 500 soared 25% for these three reasons…”

A little variety is okay even when you’re discussing more than one index. Perhaps you start with plain old “returned” for one index and then use “soared” for the second index to add emphasis and personality. Just don’t throw too many synonyms at me or I’ll get cranky. More importantly, you’ll lose readers when they get bogged down in SynonymLand.

Don’t give up on colorful language

My rant against synonyms for “return” shouldn’t scare you away from using colorful language in other places. I’m generally a big fan of powerful verbs and language that shows your personality. I’m leery of synonyms only when they interfere with comprehension.

Note: Edited on June 10, 2014, for clarity.

 Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /