Ebb and flow

Something that "ebbs and flows" follows a consistent pattern of coming and going.

Today's story: Dimming star in Orion
Explore more: Lesson #222
Keywords:

Be your best self in English

Move confidently through the English-speaking world

Listen

  • Learning speed
  • Full speed

Learn

TranscriptQuizYour turn
Simple TranscriptEspañol中文FrançaisPortuguês日本語ItalianoDeutschTürkçePolski

Ebb and flow

Today’s expression is “to ebb and flow”—I would not call this common, but you should know what it means. And it’s a good one to talk about because it’s not really clear what it means from the words. To ebb and flow. Let me just say up front that you’ll probably never need to use the word “ebb”—spelled e-b-b—unless it’s in this phrase. Maybe once every two years I’ll see the word “ebb” unattached to the word “flow,” so my advice is to just think of this as one expression: to ebb and flow.

Here’s how you heard it earlier. The brightness of a variable star ebbs and flows. Betelgeuse is one of those stars, so it’s brightness ebbs and flows. What does that mean? It means that its brightness changes in a pattern of coming and going. When something ebbs and flows, it’s a pattern of coming and going, or higher and lower, in and out, things like that. It’s a rhythm, a pattern, a cycle, things like that. The origin of the phrase is with the tides. The tide comes in; the tide goes out. Gradually, in and out, in a similar pattern.

Sometimes, Betelgeuse will be bright in the sky. Other times, it will be less bright. It’s not flashing, like a Christmas tree light. It’s gradual, a rhythm, a transition. Today it’s bright; then it gradually dims over a few weeks. Then it comes back again, gradually. It ebbs and flows, gets higher and lower, in and out, up and down.

You often say that cultural trends ebb and flow. Take fashion. Sometimes, bright colors and bold styles are popular. Then, after a few years, it’s back to simpler lines and more muted colors. A few years later, people get bored of that, and bold colors are back. Fashion trends ebb and flow.

Political trends often ebb and flow. If you have two main political parties, one will be strong for a while, as the other is weak. Then, gradually the one in charge overreaches just when the minority party has had the chance to regroup, and the minority party gradually wins a majority again. Five, ten years later, the cycle repeats. The fortunes of the parties ebb and flow over time.

Religious influence over the centuries ebbs and flows. There are times in world history in which formal religion plays a central part in society. Other times, its influence is diminished. Some people wonder whether the reduction in formal churchgoing today is part of the normal ebb and flow of human history, or if the pattern has broken.

On the same topic, the role religion plays in an individual’s life can ebb and flow. A person might be raised in a religious tradition, but gradually lose touch with the church in his early 20s. Then he might find his way back to a religious tradition later in life. There are times when it’s a big part of his life, times when it’s less prominent. The presence of religion in an individual’s life might ebb and flow over that person’s lifetime.

What else ebbs and flows? Your energy level throughout the day might ebb and flow. Your interest in studying English might ebb and flow. You might assign English a lower priority for a while, but then you come back and focus on it more intensely a few years later. That happens, right?

Quote of the week

You remember we did the episode about Mr. Rogers a few weeks ago. There were two quotes from Fred Rogers that I wanted to choose. I gave you one of them on that episode, which was Episode 216. But there’s another one I wanted to share, and it is this. “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody,” Mr. Rogers once said, “is the gift of your honest self.”

I really like that one. I think it means that if you pretend to be someone different, something other than who you truly are, then you’re robbing people around you of knowing your genuine self. I like that message a lot. Here once more is the quote: “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.”


That’s it for today. It was great to have you with us for another episode of Plain English. I survived another science-based episode, hopefully without making too many mistakes! This is the second, maybe the third episode about astronomy that we’ve done. If you liked this episode, then you’ll want to go back to Episode 172 when we talked about the eclipse that crossed over the southern hemisphere. That was number 172. I’m starting to get a little more comfortable with scientific topics. I know so many of you are engineers, scientists, doctors, researchers. I need to make sure to give you scientific types something about your fields now and then. The next episode is on Thursday. If you’ve flown internationally, like long distances, you might have noticed a choice called “premium economy.” It’s supposed to split the difference between economy class, in the back, and business class in the front of the plane. I’ll give you my review of a flight I took in premium economy on a recent trip to Ireland. So that’s on Thursday—make sure to join us then.

If you’re serious about improving in English in 2020, then I encourage you to check out Plain English Plus+. One of the best features of Plain English Plus+ is our video lessons. With each episode—twice a week—we highlight one little piece of grammar or English usage and we show you how to use it in a video lesson. And if you think it’s just sitting back and watching—it’s not. You get to write your own sentences right from inside the video. These videos show you the ways to connect ideas, develop your thoughts, and sound more professional in your writing and speaking. If this sounds like what you need, then come check us out at PlainEnglish.com/Plus.

Use realistic expressions like a native speaker

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

Test your knowledge

Take a 4-question quiz to make sure you understand today’s Expression

Plus+ feature

Write a sentence with this Expression

Get personal, human feedback on the examples that you write. Build the confidence to use this Expression in the real world

Story: Dimming star in Orion