I’m currently trying to learn correct pronunciation of th phonemes (/θ/, /ð/) since with my th-fronting I can’t pronounce words like thorough or thief.

Basically every online lesson states that I should stick my tongue between the teeth. For example, this video.

I tried that approach and after some struggling I was able to somehow pronounce single words like think, that, or the.

However, I can’t pronounce these words in the middle of the sentence as they break my breathing. I watched that video more closely and noticed that the woman did stick her tongue on the when she tried to emphasize correct pronunciation at 0:20, but she did not do this at 0:40 (or at least I didn’t notice it).

So the question is, are native English speakers actually able to pronounce in single breath phrases like at the beginning or what the heck “correctly” — that is, with sticking their tongue out?

I also found an article that proves my suspicions. It states

Don’t Place Your Tongue BETWEEN the Teeth – It’s WRONG!

but it’s too “unpopular” (video has only 1k views), so I’m not sure whether I can trust it.

Also, does UK/US make any difference here?

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    Native speakers don't experience it as you describe it (stick my tongue), but the tongue does ride the bottom of the upper teeth lightly. An Israeli friend diagnosed using Z to replace TH (Ziss apple and Zat orange) as fearing to 'stick your tongue out' in a rude gesture. If you feel you are doing that in learning this sound, go ahead and do so without fear of rudeness. The move goes unseen outside your mouth and greatly improves pronunciation. Commented May 10, 2017 at 19:19
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    As @YosefBaskin says, native speakers don't actually thrust the tongue as far out as the lady in the video is doing; it feels to me more like sort of tapping the tongue against the (very narrow) opening between top and bottom teeth. But the exaggerated motion will work for /ð/, especially if enunciating each word carefully. It's more awkward for me to pronounce /θ/ with my tongue sticking out far enough to see, though—I sound like Sylvester the Cat. So I don't think this method is meant to teach that phoneme.
    – 1006a
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 19:33
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    1) to the title question, yes, all native speakers of English pronounce 'th' correctly. Children just learning often use 'd' instead but slide over to the fricative soon enough. Some dialects stick with 'd' and that is correct for their variety. 2) The accurate way to pronounce it does not need to have the tip all the way out beyond the teeth, you get the same sound when the tip is just about to appear (and that is what native speakers do). Foreign language learners are told to stick the tongue out beyond as an exaggeration. You don't have to in order to get the right sound.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 20:13
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    Also, there is considerable variation in how these are pronounced. They often neutralize (as in with, which appears both voiced and voiceless in most people's speech), and it's hampered by the low functional load of that contrast, which is not quite finished with its historical development, like most of the other English fricatives. Commented May 10, 2017 at 20:22
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    @shadeware Since you mean exactly that, I should correct myself and say, almost by definition, most Americans always pronounce the 'th' as a dental fricative in word initial or intervocalic positions, and they never 'fall back' to z/s/f (by definition of 'most Americans'). Sticking your tongue between your teeth is not what Americans do, but it gets you the same sound. To do it like a native, your tongue gets the same sound but just not by sticking it out so far (or rather at all; almost but not out).
    – Mitch
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 20:55

5 Answers 5


In connected speech, /ð/ at the start of function words may be assimilated to a preceding consonant in some cases. However, I don't think there are any circumstances where this kind of assimilation always occurs—my impression is that it is gradient. Also, the identity of the preceding consonant probably affects the probability of assimilation.

I have found a source "Applied English Phonology", by Mehmet Yavas, that gives a more specific description of the conditions of this assimilation:

unstressed initial /ð/ in words such as the, this, that becomes assimilated (with or without complete assimilation) to previous alveolar consonants (e.g. what the heck [wɑt̪d̪əhɛk], run the course [ɹ̣ʌnːəkɔɹ̣s], till they see [tɪlːesi], how's the dog? [haʊzːədɔg], takes them [teksːəm]) (p. 67)

I think "takes them" may not be the best example of the phonetic process in question, since them additionally has an alternative form ’em that may occur after any consonant, not only alveolar consonants.

The fact that "in the" could be realized as [ɪnːə] or [ɪnə] rather than [ɪnðə] is mentioned in Geoff Lindsey's blog post "Lucas quiz – the answers".

Another known phonetic phenomenon is deletion (which could be seen as assimilation followed by mandatory shortening) of [θ] or [ð] before the suffix -(e)s. This is lexicalized for many speakers in the noun clothes /kloʊz/, although the non-assimilated pronunciation /kloʊðz/ is not uncommon either. Some speakers (I think a smaller number) also have this type of assimilation/deletion in the word "months", pronouncing it as [mʌnts]. This has been covered in other places on this site (e.g. How to distinguish 'month' and 'months' in pronunciation?)

As far as I know, no native speakers (without speech impediments) use [z] for /ð/, or [s] for /θ/, in contexts other than assimilation to an adjacent /s/ or /z/.

Some native speakers do use realizations other than [ð] and [θ] more generally—I discuss this in more detail in my answer to Do all native English speakers actually pronounce the "th" sound?—but as far as I know it is always something non-sibilant like [d̪], [d̪͡ð], [v]. If you can't manage [θ] in "thorough" or "thief", I would say it's better to fall back on [f] or [t] than to use [s].

As for "at the beginning" and "what the heck", if you pronounce them at a reasonable pace, it will probably not even be noticed if you use a dental stop [d̪] rather than a dental fricative.


Place your tongue between your teeth, without actually biting it. Keep your jaws relaxed.

Test to see if you can breathe in. Then breathe out. That's the /θ/ phoneme right there.

Now all you have to do is add some vibration of your vocal chord while breathing, and you have the /ð/ phoneme.

It's the same difference as when shifting from f to v.

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    I assume you mean “make sure you can’t breathe in through your mouth” when you say “test to see if you can breath in.”
    – Jim
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 21:04
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    @Jim You should be able to breathe through your mouth. If you can breathe in, you can breathe out. That's how the /θ/ phoneme is produced. It's just air coming out your mouth while your tongue is placed between your teeth.
    – m.a.a.
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 21:16
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    When I pronounce /θ/, my tongue is between my teeth and not my lips. It stays in my mouth. Commented May 10, 2017 at 21:37
  • @PeterShor Yes, that's what I meant. Corrected. Pardon my carelessness and thanks for pointing it out.
    – m.a.a.
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 21:58
  • When I, a native English speaker, place my tongue in preparation for making a ’th’ as in the word that and then try to breathe in- I can’t. Breathing out is easy because the air pushes past the “tongue-tooth” seal.
    – Jim
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 22:52

I am Russian but I've done my own research on how to pronounce the two th phonemes.

The th as in thief, thought, think, thanks is really so close to the way snakes make their sound. The tongue merely gently touches the teeth and is close to the bottom of the mouth if not lying on it. Just try to hiss the way snakes do and pronounce the words.

The th as in that, there, the, those, then and so on is really close to [d]. It's just much deeper though. The tongue is somewhere close to the upper teeth and gently touches them. Try to say the word dose by bringing your tongue closer to the upper teeth when that works try changing the sound to a soft [z].

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    Thanks, comrade! Looks like my mistake was in the positioning of my tongue: I kept it in the upper part of my mouth instead of pressing against the bottom, as described here. Commented May 11, 2017 at 8:08
  • The only difference between /θ/ and /ð/ is the voicing. Just like /s/ and /z/, and /f/ and /v/. When I pronounce them, the tongue is in the middle of the mouth (but there are probably other ways of doing it). Commented Jun 14, 2017 at 12:08

Writing this answer as a native speaker...

Irish sometimes don't. Different versions of English have slightly different pronunciations, and Irish English doesn't always use the same "th" sound as other types of English. Irish teachers at my company in Japan taught me this.

Even in other countries though, really, really young children sometimes have trouble making the "th" sound. It's not a normal sound. It's a difficult sound for everyone to learn, so sometimes really small children must take time to learn to say it easily. (I was not good at this until I was 9-years-old, but probably most children become good when they are at least a few years younger.)

Also, yes, you place your tongue behind your two top front teeth, not between your teeth.

And I'll tell you a little "secret": Many English teachers lie. (I was an English teacher myself, but I did not do this personally.) If the teacher is not fully fluent in English, something can easily just be an innocent mistake, but there are many cases, especially with fluent teachers, when it is a lie.

They do that because they think the real truth is too difficult for you to understand; so instead of that, they tell you something simple and slightly similar, but which is still very wrong information. They think you will understand the real truth later, but in reality, this just causes confusion. It's okay for them to do this, if they tell you that they are doing this; but some will not tell you, and that causes confusion. (This happens a lot for native speaker students and non-native speaker students alike.)

Don't believe everything they say. If something does not sound right, then it may very well not be right. Just like the between-the-teeth thing.

Related answer from Computer Science Educators Stack Exchange: https://cseducators.stackexchange.com/a/4718

Interestingly enough, in the context of this particular question, there's also an idiom called "lying through one's teeth": https://www.dictionary.com/browse/lie-through-one-s-teeth

  • The tongue between the teeth thing is not a lie. Some people do pronounce th in this manner. The issue is probably more the case that most teachers don't know much about pronunciation and describing how to make a sound is quite difficult. Therefore, most teachers are lazy. They copy other teachers or regurgitate information without adding their own learned experience or knowledge on the topic. Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 7:43

The location of your tongue very much depends on the physical aspect of your jaw and teeth alignment, which isn't the same for everybody.

Some people pronounce the th sounds with their tongue slightly touching the back of their front teeth.

For others, the tongue slightly pokes out.

When I pronounce the th sounds, it feels as if my tongue is lightly resting on the back of my teeth. However, when I take a close up photo of the sound I see that my tongue is slightly poking out. Importantly, however, my tongue doesn't feel like it is outside of my teeth.

So for me, it is most accurate to say my tongue bulges out a little, but the pressure spot is above on my upper teeth.

My final tip is to never strain or bite your tongue when making th sounds!

I give a quick demonstration in this video, in reference to the pronunciation of 'three'. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPLfz7dz2Rw

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