Did you know there are two ways to pronounce the word the, and the rule that governs which pronunciation you choose is kind of like how you choose between opens in a new windowa and an?
I didn’t know this until I started opens in a new windowthe Grammar Girl podcast and people wrote in to complain that I was doing it wrong. Then I checked the opens in a new windowMerriam-Webster dictionary (because you’d be amazed how many times people tell me I’m doing something wrong without checking first that know what they’re talking about), and lo and behold, they were right! There are pronunciation guidelines that I never learned.
At one of my book signings, I talked about this with the attendees, and a lot of them said they were taught this rule in choir classes. I never took choir, so maybe that’s why I didn’t know.
Here’s the deal:
How to Pronounce ‘The’
Pronounce it “thee” if the next word starts with a vowel sound.
Pronounce it “thuh” if the next word starts with a consonant sound.
Just like with opens in a new windowa versus an, it’s not the first letter of the next word that matters, it’s the first sound. Here are some examples:
When the next word starts with a consonant sound
Did Aardvark bring “thuh” cheese platter?
Where is “thuh” universal remote? (Note that universal starts with a consonant sound: Y.)
When the next word starts with a vowel sound
I prefer “thee” effervescent water.
Did Squiggly get “thee” MRI? (Note that MRI starts with a vowel sound: E.)
People Also Use ‘Thee’ for Emphasis
The big exception to these rules is that people also use the “thee” pronunciation when they want extra emphasis or to indicate that something is important. For example, if you really want to make a point, you might say that someone is “thee” big kahuna or that the summer gala is “thee” social event of the year.
I Still Get It Wrong Sometimes
I also notice when I go back and listen to the podcast that I still sometimes get these wrong, so I apologize in advance. I try to remember, but since I spent decades of my life not making a distinction between the two pronunciations, I still get it wrong sometimes.
Get more tips like this in The Grammar Devotional: