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ESL forum > Grammar and Linguistics > Pronunciation of "the" and "a"    

Pronunciation of "the" and "a"

United Kingdom

Pronunciation of "the" and "a"
Hi Peeps!
Now, I �m a native speaker but that doesn �t mean I �m a good English speaker. I make all the mistakes that natives make and none of the mistakes that non-natives make. However, I �ve spoken to other teachers before about this and have never had a satisfactory reply. Why do we pronounce "the" as "thee" sometimes and "thu" in others. I know we say "thee" when we want to emphasize the importance of something but that �s all. And while I �m at it, why do we say "ay" for "a" sometimes. I really can �t think why but sometimes it seems better to. I can �t see a pattern though. Any thoughts on this? Could it be an antiquated form that has lingered without a rule attached? Is it the same as the "either" problem (is it "eyether" or "eether") in that it �s up to the individual? Or is it something far sinister to do with the Norman conquest and the likes (if in doubt blame French Vikings)?

5 Jul 2011      


Coming from a non - native speaker (and I know I can be mistaken):

"Ay" and "thee" when we put stress on it. 

- when we want to make the difference between the two clearer (No, I didn �t say a (AY)  difference, but THE (thee) difference.) 

  Have you eaten the sandwich?  I �m not sure hat you mean. I ate a (AY) sandwich half an hour ago. I �m not sure it was the one you made for me.
- THEE when we want to make sure the other person knows it �s about something or someone specific (or special). Useful for dramatizing a little: I have tried THE (thee) best cake in the world. I have met THE (thee) cutest guy ever!

- when we talk about the articles themselves: I think there is an a (ay) missing here and a the (thee) missing in the last sentence.

In all other cases we use the weak forms. 

I �ll be waiting for corrections now so that I can learn some more. Hope you like the answer, though.

6 Jul 2011     

Czech Republic

British vs American English? "/eyether/" (British) / "/eether/" (American)

"ay" - I think native speakers use "/ay/" to emphasise the article "A" or to "slow down" the speed of speaking (when it doubt, thinking what to say next...)
I think I have seen "/ay/" ... blackbird in the garden. (The speaker is trying to remember the name of the bird)

"thee" - to emphasise or before a vowel  pronounced
- "/thee/" apple, "/thee/" Eiffel Tower, "/thee/" internet, "/thee/" old book, "/thee/" underground
Have you found "/thee/" pen?  (= Have you found that really expensive  golden pen I gave you last Christmas?)

PS: I make (many) mistakes that non-natives make so I may be wrong... Wink

PS 2: I agree with Sophia - ueslteacher "a as /ei/ when we stress the meaning "one"
PS 3: I have also seen some films with slang/regional English and the poor were "overusing" /thee/ to give a strong emphasise. On the other hand an uneducated factory-boy pronounced "the" as /thuh/ all the time.
So maybe ignoring the rule of  "/thee/ + pronounced vowel" suggests a lower social status (poor, uneducated...) in films / period dramas?

PS 4: my British teacher told us to use "/thee/" before vowels so that our sentence "flows" smoothly without any unnecessary stops / breaks.
Please note that there should be "/thee/" hour because it is pronounced with a vowel in the beginning of the noun. Beware of the silent letters followed by vowels...

6 Jul 2011     


Hi, Spinney.... well, as I learned it, we say "thee" when the next word begins with a vowel as in: "the" (thee) airplane, the onion, etc.
and we say "thu" when the word begins with a consonant, as in: "the"(thu) book, the chair, the table, etc.
I did not learn this pattern in a language school, or as English as a Second Language. I learned this in school, in the United States, I grew up there and did all my schooling as a "native" speaker.
Although I have no answer or clue for the "a" issue! Embarrassed
Hope I was of a little help!

6 Jul 2011     


1) the is pronounced "thee" (apart from the case you mentioned) before words that start with a vowel and that �s a rule I �ve been taught e.g. the Earth;
2) we pronounce a as /ei/ when we stress the meaning "one";
3) as far as either/neither is concerned, I was taught that the difference in pronunciation is the Am Eng/Br Eng variants.

from a non-native to a native

But there are experts out there who could explain it much deeper and better than meWink
P.S. Goodness! While I was typing some three or is it four people were posting tooShocked

6 Jul 2011     


I think dear Les can clear this doubt in a more thorough way! Hope he posts soon!

6 Jul 2011     

United Kingdom

Dear Spinney,
I �ve come in very late and have worked on it for a short while.  I �ll complete it tomorrow.

6 Jul 2011     


- /thee/ before vowel sounds (e.g. the /thee/ enemy)
- �a � should not be pronounced as /ay/

I think these are the only rules language learners need. As for deviations from the norm, I always say there are always exceptions to rules. Also, some people seem to overuse /thee/ and /ay/ which can be a bit annoying sometimes (some newsreaders as well as US presidents seem to have this affectation).

6 Jul 2011     

United Kingdom

Wow! Typed this before bed and awoke to all these fantastic replies. Very illuminating. It looks like it �s the vowel/emphasis thingy. I heard that before but wasn �t sure. It must be the poor uneducated Fenlander in meLOL I remember talking to an American at our school about the "eether/eyether" puzzle and she told me that it didn �t matter. However, the US isn �t really one country so much as a great big melting pot so perhaps in her state it didn �t really matter but in others it goes as standard. Anyway, thanks again folks. You �ve made my day!Thumbs Up

6 Jul 2011     

United States

I think Philip said it very well. Keep it simple.

6 Jul 2011     

United States

To make a long story short:

The (tha) sound before a consonant sound and
The (thee) sound before a vowel sound.

The same applies to an and an.

6 Jul 2011     

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