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How do we pronounce THE in sentences? I heard that THE can be pronounced as "tha" and "thee".

What is the criteria for pronouning as such?

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Ordinary pronunciation

If the following word starts with a vowel sound, you pronounce it “thee”. For example, in the end and the hour, “the” is pronounced with a long ē.

If the following word starts with a consonant sound, you pronounce it “thə”. For example, in the beginning and the uterus, “the” is pronounced with a schwa.

Notice that the following word’s spelling doesn’t matter. What matters is the pronunciation.

In both situations, the is unstressed.

Euphony

The reason for the different pronunciations is euphony: it sounds ugly in English to follow a schwa with a vowel. When you pronounce a schwa followed by another vowel, as in ultra-atomic, usually you separate them with a glottal stop, which is felt to be ugly in English, though sometimes necessary. When pronouncing the with a long ē before a vowel, the ē flows smoothly into the following vowel.

Some people do pronounce the with a schwa before a vowel. It sounds crude, and suggests that the speaker lacks aesthetic sense.

Emphatic pronunciation

The can be pronounced with a long ē before a consonant, as well as stressed, for special emphasis, to indicate that something is unique and special. “The schedule says we’re meeting Michelle Obama at 2:00. Does it mean the Michelle Obama?” The emphatic pronunciation distinguishes the U.S. president’s wife from other people who might be named Michelle Obama.

See also this ELU question.

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  • Nice answer mostly, but do you have any evidence for your rather unusual suggestion about glottal stops eg 'ultra-atomic'? Dec 27 '14 at 15:24
  • How do u pronounce" the uterus"
    – Vinayak
    Dec 27 '14 at 17:03
  • @Araucaria “Ultra-atomic” was an example I read in a dictionary many years ago to illustrate what a glottal stop is. The use of the glottal stop to indicate separation is an everyday AmE observation. Of course, people don't always indicate separation, the glottal stop is not the only way to do it, non-rhotic accents also use ‘r’ in this role, but (I think) wouldn't after “thə”—and “the evening” often still gets a glottal stop anyway. Do you think this opens too big a can of worms? If so, I'll delete it. Or maybe there's a better way to explain it (without getting technical).
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 27 '14 at 17:29
  • @Vinayak In IPA, /ðə ˈjuː.təɹ.əs/. Here's a dictionary entry with an audio pronunciation. The main thing to notice for pronouncing “the uterus” is that “uterus” begins with a consonant sound (as if it were spelled starting with a y).
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 27 '14 at 17:39
  • @BenKovitz I'm not entirely up-to-date with GenAm, so I'm not saying that it ain't so, but a reference would be very useful - for me at least :) Dec 29 '14 at 11:04

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