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I am a bit confused about how to practically pronounce the vowel in the definite article "the" when followed by a consonant. In theory, it should be a schwa.

However, I have a feeling like, in many practical situations, the vowel is pronounced more like a "short e" (as in "bed") rather than a schwa. At least, that gets very close to a short e.

As an example, you can try having Google Translate pronounce the three-word phrase "therefore, the cat". It is not only Google Translate that pronounces it this way. I've heard many native speakers similarly pronounce the vowel in the definite article "the", when followed by a consonant, very similar to a short "e" if not identical to it.

Is it fair to say that in spoken English it is ok to pronounce the vowel in "the" when followed by a consonant very similar to a short "e"?

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    All I hear is a very short indistinct vowel, the quality of the vowel isn't very important. It is fairly central (not [i:]) I don't hear a distinct [e] any other particular vowel.
    – James K
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 0:05
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    It's a regular schwa. I had a Spanish-speaker lecturer in philosophy at a very prestigious UK university as a student. Their speech was really distracting and painful to listen to precisely because they pronounced the as /ðe/. It's one of the most common words in the English language. Please, please do NOT do this, unless you want to distract your listener with your strange and uncomfortable pronunciation. Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 0:59
  • @JamesK Thank you for your response. I'll try to think about your comment. So you are saying that the vowel in "therefore" is not central whereas the vowel in "the" is?
    – Jeff
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 2:37
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Thank you for your response and sorry about the negative experience you had. I wonder if you hear significantly different vowel sounds when you listen to Google Translate saying the phrase "therefore, the cat"? I think Google Translate speaks in standard American accent or at least something close enough.
    – Jeff
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 2:41
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. BTW, you said, it is a "regular" schwa. I wonder if there exist more than one type of schwa. If so, can please list them all?
    – Jeff
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 3:12

2 Answers 2

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There’s a lot of regional variation; in Yorkshire for example you might enquire about a missing feline with a sentence that would be written “where’s t’ cat?” But is pronounced “where’s (gets ready to say ‘t’ but doesn’t) cat”. Around the country you’ll find almost any short vowel sound being used in place of the ‘e’, so unless you’re trying to imitate a particular dialect it’s safe to use whatever feels most comfortable.

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  • Thank you for your response. At present, I am trying to master the "standard American accent". Any suggestions for this choice specifically?
    – Jeff
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 2:35
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    That’s not my area of expertise :-)
    – Frog
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 10:23
  • t' can be spoken at times, but spelling is inconsistent
    – Rick
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 15:19
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It is typically pronounced with a schwa; that's how I hear the Google Translate version. More specifically, in such contexts it is generally pronounced as a weak form, as Geoff Lindsey helpfully explains. Weak forms are spoken very rapidly in ways that can make it hard to hear the underlying vowel sound. They essentially become short prefixes attached to the word after them (see another Geoff Lindsey video).

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