54

The is sometimes pronounced "tha" or "thi".

Which is the correct pronunciation of this word?

Are both correct and used interchangeably at specific places?

If the second question is correct, please provide the rule of pronouncing at different places.

  • 2
    I have heard people pronounce it as "de" clearly a "d" instead of "th". – SovereignSun Mar 24 '17 at 6:49
  • @SovereignSun Yes, especially in Malaysian English(MyE) – user178049 Mar 24 '17 at 7:04
  • @user178049 Yeh, also da, and di. I wish ya da best. – SovereignSun Mar 24 '17 at 7:06
  • Another dialect variation is the UK Yorkshire 't': "going up t'hill". I am sure there are many more. – Ali Beadle Mar 25 '17 at 7:55
77

The has two pronunciations: "thuh" /ðə/ and "thee" /ði/. While in a few dialects the rules are less well-defined, in most British and American dialects you say "thuh" when it precedes a consonant sound.

  • The(thuh) person /ðə pɜ:sən/
  • The(thuh) university /ðə ju:nɪvɜ:sɪti/

But you say "thee" when it precedes a vowel.

  • The(thee) apple /ði æpl/
  • The(thee) imagination /ði ɪmædʒɪneɪʃn/

Note that "University" is pronounced "Yuniversity", which is started with a consonant sound.

In most dialects, "thee" can also be used in conjunction with particularly increased stress to add specific emphasis on the word:

  • This is the(thee) university for you. /ði: ju:nɪvɜ:sɪti/

Here's an excerpt from American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Styles

Generally, before a consonant sound, the is pronounced (thə), <...>; before a vowel sound, the is often pronounced (thē) or (thī)<...>; and when stressed for emphasis the is pronounced (thē)


We should give credit to @Araucaria for editing the IPA

  • 22
    This answer is correct but if you are not sure use 'thuh'. As a native British English speaker it would sound weird to say 'thee' person but 'thee' apple and 'thuh' apple both sound normal to me. (I have no formal qualifications in English, except that I have lived all my life in the UK) – RedPython Mar 23 '17 at 11:10
  • 25
    The (thee) is also used for emphasis, to single out one option among many. This is the (thee) university for you. – Davo Mar 23 '17 at 11:43
  • 29
    @curiousdannii To me as a native speaker, "thuh apple" and "thuh elephant" definitely sound slightly wrong, and "thee university" sounds wrong in cases where the purpose of the sentence is not to emphasise the "the". I can find more similar anecdotal evidence online; haven't found any more reliable sources yet though I'm afraid. – Muzer Mar 23 '17 at 14:18
  • 5
    Sorry if I sounded too dismissive too quickly, but this sounds like a typical fake rule which many language teachers invent. I'm still a little skeptical how strongly the rule applies because I feel like I would have noticed it when watching TV before (and I watch a lot of US and UK TV), but maybe it is a real, if only subtle, difference. But that's why answers should always be supported with quotes/references. Does anyone have easy access to the CGEL (Cambridge Grammar of the English Language)? I'd be interested to hear what it says. – curiousdannii Mar 23 '17 at 14:24
  • 8
    @curiousdannii Presumably you've heard of John Wells? Read his blog here. This is basic stuff for language teachers. But of course, it's only a broad generalisation. Hard attack is becoming very common in modern RP, for example. – Araucaria Mar 23 '17 at 14:59
8

Just to add a little bit to the very good accepted answer:

In addition to the two distinctions already noted, there is at least one other situation in which native (at least American English) speakers will often use the stressed pronunciation.

In speech, when we are not sure what we are going to say next, most often we will use the stressed pronunciation:

I saw it in the(thee)...what do you call it...the(thuh) thing.

[reading aloud:] "Spinning around, she beheld the(thee)..." [turning page] "terrifying spectacle of a headless noun phrase!"

This distinction isn't a rule or even a conscious pattern; I never noticed myself doing it until it was pointed out1, but now if I'm paying attention I can tell that I do, and notice others doing it, as well.


Also, you'll probably notice that all of these patterns of distinction (before a vowel, for emphasis, and for uncertainty) also exist for the indefinite article.

A generally changes to an before a vowel sound (a fruit versus an orange, but some dialects drop the distinction and always use a).

There are two ways to say the article a: unstressed (something like uh, often represented with a schwa Ə) or stressed (like the name of the letter A). This distinction can be used for emphasis:

So, I heard this is the place to learn English!
Well, this is certainly a(A) place to learn English. I'd say a(Ə) pretty good place, in fact, but there are probably others.

And, as with the, it can also signal when we're unsure how we're going to finish our sentence:

Welcome to our fine fast food establishment's drive-through window! Would you like to try a(Ə) Super Gobbler Supreme?
Um, no, I'd like a(A)... (scanning the menu) ...hmm... a(Ə) small fry and a(Ə) water.


1 I first heard about this, I think, on a public radio interview with a linguist many moons ago. A related article (I'm not sure if it's by the same person I heard on the radio, but it's the same idea) is Pronouncing ‘‘the’’ as ‘thee’’ to signal problems in speaking by Fox Tree and Clark, 1996. From the abstract:

In a large corpus of spontaneous English conversation, speakers were found to use thiy to signal an immediate suspension of speech to deal with a problem in production. Fully 81% of the instances of thiy in the corpus were followed by a suspension of speech, whereas only 7% of a matched sample of thuhs were followed by such suspensions.

  • "In speech, when we are not sure what we are going to say next, most often we will use the stressed pronunciation" I'd have to say I (anecdotally) disagree... also, the unstressed "the" sounds a little more like "uh" which is a fairly common filler – HotelCalifornia Mar 25 '17 at 3:12
  • @HotelCalifornia Listen carefully to those around you...I didn't come up with this on my own, I started noticing it after hearing a linguist talking about it. I'll add a bit from the research to my answer (I'm not sure it's publicly accessible). – 1006a Mar 25 '17 at 3:39
  • Hm, it could very well be that I'm hearing a combination of "the" (stressed) and "uh" (the filler), that together produce a similar sound to "the" (unstressed), but either way, I've learned something new today :) – HotelCalifornia Mar 25 '17 at 3:51
0

Physiologically, "thuh" is voiced at the back of the mouth, which means the mouth, particularly the back and middle of the tongue, must be relaxed, while "thee" is voiced at the very front, requiring more tension. Since all of the other vowels are voiced further up than "thuh", it isn't possible to easily elide this form of the word with other vowels. There's almost always a little catch in the voice as you reset the tension in your mouth to produce the front-voiced vowels. This is not necessary when you are releasing the tension to move from "thee" to any of the other vowels. So, in general, the front position of "thee" makes it relatively easy to move to all of the other vowels, which are formed further back in the mouth.

Contrary to this, the relaxed position of the mouth when forming "thuh" requires that the back and middle of the tongue be relaxed and out of the way, which makes it easier to tense and move the lips and tip of the tongue. Since these play a greater role in the production of consonants, it requires less energy to move from "thuh" to a consonant, because the apparatus of the middle and back parts of the tongue are already out of the way.

  • In other words: they may be used interchangeably, but the different pronunciations are more suitable (for fluidity) according to different words or sounds that immediately follow. – JPhil Mar 24 '17 at 20:26

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