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When saying the title of JRR Tolkien's masterpiece, which is the correct pronunciation (Yes, I know that they're spelled wrong, but I'm trying to emphasize the pronunciation):

  1. Thuh Lord of thuh Rings
  2. Thee Lord of thee Rings
  3. Thuh Lord of thee Rings
  4. Thee Lord of thuh Rings

I'm partial to the first pronunciation, but another family member is adamant that the last one is the correct one. Can anybody resolve this argument?

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I wonder where your family member got such an outlandish idea. Not a native English speaker, I guess? –  Colin Fine Nov 29 '10 at 15:15
    
Actually, she's a retired elementary school teacher from the Southeast USA! –  taserian Dec 1 '10 at 1:16
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1 Answer

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The is pronounced "thee" when it precedes a word that begins with a vowel (the apple, the overtone series, etc.) or (sometimes) an aspirated consonant (the historic occasion of his birth) or when the speaker wishes to differentiate a noun by calling it out for special dramatic emphasis.

For example:

"He was the heavyweight boxing champion."

"He was the heavyweight boxing champion."

The first is a simple declaration; the second alerts the listener that the title in question is special above and beyond the mere description that follows.

Similarly, one could pronounce the article "thee" to emphasize that only one example of a thing exists: "She was the reason I stayed in Chicago." (Meaning she was the single or entire reason the speaker stayed in Chicago.)

In both examples, the difference is one of dramatic emphasis.

In your example above, I would pronounce Tolkien's trilogy "The Lord of the Rings" with no "thee" at all. To pronounce the long "e" in the first word of the title would be to suggest that there are pretenders to the title of Lord of the Rings and you want to make sure people understand that this one is the genuine article.

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I dunno, I say "thuh apple". –  Marthaª Nov 28 '10 at 16:16
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@Martha: For some people, the application of [ðə] ("thuh") is expanding into words where [ði] ("thee") used to be preferred. I don't think there are any dialects that are going the opposite direction (using [ði] where previously [ðə] was preferred). –  Kosmonaut Nov 28 '10 at 16:21
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@Martha: The "rule" about vowels may be subject to regional or social variation, but I think it is "standard" in the U.S. (i.e., heard most often by TV and radio announcers) to say "thee apple"; but I wouldn't fall on my sword to defend the principle. I will just note that the example you cite forces a partial glottal stop to articulate the two vowels; the "ee" sound lets the speaker use a "y-glide" to get to the next vowel, which sounds like "theeyapple". Hence I think that way is actually easier to pronounce. –  Robusto Nov 28 '10 at 16:29
    
I would say "thuh apple." In fact, in casual speech I would always use "thuh" unless I was emphasizing the article. –  Zach Conn Nov 29 '10 at 20:43
    
@Martha, @Robusto: The "rule" is commonly applied in the UK too, but again, there are regional dialects where "[ðə]" is universal. –  psmears Jan 14 '11 at 15:42
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