My friend asked me how to pronounce what is probably the most common word in the English language–the article the. Thuh? Thee? Duh. :)
Two ways: we use the same rules for using a or an.
We use a when the succeeding word sounds like a consonant (e.g., b, d, l, m, w) or an when the succeeding word sounds like a vowel (i.e., a, e, i, o, u). Take note that some words may begin with a consonant but, when pronounced, sound like they begin with a vowel. And vice versa.
- a monster
- a love letter
- a European tour (Why? Because European sounds like it begins with a Y. We pronounce it yoo-ro-pee-yan.)
- an apple
- an hour (Because the h in hour isn’t pronounced)
- an RP team (Because we pronounce the initialism RP as ar-pee; it begins with a vowel sound)
Why is there such a distinction?
We have to remember that language was first created for the ear, not for the eye; it was spoken way before it was written. So the choice between a and an, I think, is based on what sounds better. Try pronouncing “a apple” or “a hour”–sounds funny and jarring!
We follow the same rule for the. We pronounce the as thuh when the succeeding word sound like a consonant, and pronounce it thee (hard e) when the succeeding word sounds like a vowel.
Using the same examples:
- thuh monster
- thuh love letter
- thee European tour
- thee apple
- thee hour
- thee RP team
If you want to emphasize the word following the, pronounce it as thee. Say, “Let’s welcome thee one, thee only, thee Gary Valenciano!” Even if Gary’s name begins with a g.
I’d like to think the rule on the is not a hard-and-fast rule because we say thee monster as easily as we do thuh monster. But the dictionaries seem to require the distinction.
The New Oxford American Dictionary says: