English Club says that usually, we pronounce "the" as "thuh", but when it happens to be in front of a vowel sound, then we pronounce it as "thee".

Why is "the university" pronounced as "thuh" university rather than "thee university"? Isn't "u" a vowel, and shouldn't it therefore be pronounced "thee university"? The page I linked to gives as explanation that "university" is pronounced "youniversity" and this y in there is a consonant sound? But why should y be a consonat sound? For me it's more a vowel sound …

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    Why initial "u" is pronounce /ju:/ instead of /u:/ is an interesting question in itself. – chepner Jan 29 '17 at 16:43
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    A lot of languages drop "the" entirely. You rarely hear a Russian say it when they speak in English, as in "Ukraine". And UK-English speakers drop it from both university and hospital. Just sayin' – SDsolar Jan 30 '17 at 1:00
  • You might also ask why owl and ouch are pronounced so similarly. Goes with the rhyme A,E,I,O,U, and sometimes Y and W in unbroken meter. – SDsolar Jan 30 '17 at 1:01
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    Does this answer your question? What is the correct pronunciation of "the"? – Void Jan 8 at 8:51

In English, the pronunciation of the is based on the sound of the following letter, not which letter it's written with. University is pronounced with a "y" or [j] in IPA, which in English acts as a consonant at the beginning of a word.

In some languages [j] acts as a vowel, but not in English.

Therefore, "thuh".

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    And it's "a university" rather than "an university" for exactly the same reason. – David Richerby Jan 29 '17 at 17:00
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    More precisely, it's the following phoneme, and university has an extra consonant at the beginning. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jan 29 '17 at 19:32
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    I think it should also be noted that in a lot of dialects, the is simply pronounced "thuh" and almost never "thee" regardless of whether the word starts with a vowel or a consonant. – Aiaimai Jan 30 '17 at 15:48
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    Similarly, it is 'an NBA player', and not 'a NBA player', in spite of the fact of the letter which immediately follows the article is a consonant letter... but it is pronounced [en], so the first SOUND is a vowel sound. – user58319 Oct 31 '19 at 11:27

The umbrella

The apple

The idea.

As an American speaker, I pronounce all of these as "thuh" -- in fact, in normal conversation I blend the vowel sounds together to make one sound:




I going to have to suggest that thuh "English Club" is not thuh definitive source for all things English. There is a wide variety of pronunciations.

The only time I (or other Americans who talk similarly) use "thee" is for emphasis. "Thee" apple means this apple, as different and more important than any other apple in the current context.

[Edit] Anyone who doubts me, just do a YouTube search for "the envelope, please", or "the Oscar goes to ..." British speakers seem to always pronounce it "thee". Many (but not all) of the American-sounding speakers say "thuh".

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    @CurtisWhite what is "standard"? I mean, sure, as far as Henry Higgins and perhaps every other Englishman is concerned, Americans haven't really ever spoken actual English, but nevertheless. – Andrew Jan 29 '17 at 1:12
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    I see. I'm from eastern Canada and I always pronounce the as "thee" before vowel sounds. Saying "thuh apple" is very unnatural to me. – Curtis White Jan 29 '17 at 3:09
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    As an American from New York and currently living in California, this is not what I do. – Kevin Jan 29 '17 at 3:50
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    I've found I could say either "thuh umbrella" or "thee umbrella." I don't know if there's a rule distinguishing them. Representing New Jersey. – Matt Samuel Jan 29 '17 at 11:43
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    As John Wells notes in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary: "The English as a foreign language learner is advised to use ðə before a consonant sound (the boy, the house), ði before a vowel sound (the egg, the hour). Native speakers, however, sometimes ignore this distribution, in particular by using ðə before a vowel (which is in turn usually reinforced by a preceding ʔ), or by using ðiː in any environment, though especially before a hesitation pause. Furthermore, some speakers use stressed ðə as a strong form, rather than the usual ðiː." – snailplane Jan 29 '17 at 21:34

There are several issues here.

/j/ and /w/ are phonologically consonant sounds in English

Yes, the semivowels /j/ and /w/ are classified as consonant sounds in English, even though phonetically they are like vowels. That’s just how English works. This applies most noticeably to the a/an rule: we say “a year,” “a university,” “a woman,” “a one-time deal” and as far as I know, no modern English speaker would find *"an university" or *"an one-time deal" acceptable.

Pronunciations of “the”

The form /ði/ is used, no matter what the following sound is, when this word is emphasized. The most common context where the is emphasized might be a contrast with another determiner like “a/an”.

In non-emphatic contexts, the situation is more complicated. However, the rule you were taught is correct. There are just other factors that can affect pronunciation. I’m taking the following information from “Constraints on definite article alternation in speech production: To “thee” or not to “thee”?” by M. Gareth Gaskell, Helen Cox, Katherine Foley, Helen Grieve, and Rachel O’Brien, which is specifically about British English speakers.

In non-emphatic contexts where the following sound is a consonant, the form /ðə/ is usually used. However, there are a few factors that increase the likelihood of using /ði/ before a consonant sound.

  • second-syllable stress
  • the glide /j/, even more so where it is spelled with the letter <u>

In non-emphatic contexts where the following sound is a vowel, the form /ði/ is usually used. However, there are a few factors that increase the likelihood of using /ðə/ before a vowel sound.

  • first-syllable stress
  • the vowel /i/ or /ɪ/ (the greater likelihood of using /ə/ before these than before other vowel sounds can be seen as a form of dissimilation: it's awkward to have two identical or similar sounds right next to each other)

Despite the existence of factors that increase the likelihood of using the “opposite” form, Gaskell et al. found that the vast majority of the 50 adults in their study closely followed the consonant-vowel rule. So for an English language learner, I would recommend learning to apply this rule, although it’s not a big deal if you use the “opposite” form: native speakers do also sometimes. Obvously native speakers don't have to try to follow this rule (most of them will automatically, but some might not), but this site is not for native speakers.

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