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Although there are rather simple rules determining the pronunciation of "the", native speakers quite often deviate from these rules (including, e.g., TV shows). According to the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary,

The EFL learner is advised to use [ðə] before a consonant sound (the boy, the house), [ði] before a vowel sound (the egg, the hour). Native speakers, however, sometimes ignore this distribution, in particular by using [ðə] before a vowel (which is in turn usually reinforced by a preceding ʔ), or by using [ði:] in any environment, though especially before a hesitation pause. Furthermore, some speakers use stressed [ðə] as a strong form, rather than the usual [ði:].

My question is: when native speakers use [ðə] instead of [ði] before a vowel sound, do they do it on purpose or accidentally? If it is on purpose, how do they (typically) decide which pronunciation to use? What is a valid reason to use [ðə] before a vowel sound?

  • As a non-linguist and native American English speaker, I didn't learn about this "rule" until I was in my late thirties. I should mention that I studied in University as an English Major for two years before switching my major. Point being, for me the answer is always "accidentally" but my personal experience is insufficient for me to provide an answer in this case. – Lumberjack Aug 18 '14 at 17:01
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    there are rules for pronouncing the? as a native speaker, i have never heard them. maybe it's because i just say what "sounds right", but this is definitely not something taught in schools. it really doesn't matter when you pronounce it each way. no one will notice or care. – ell Aug 18 '14 at 17:01
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    Native speakers are not taught anything about the English language in Anglophone schools. Yes, there are rules for pronouncing the; they're the same rules as for pronouncing a and an -- one before consonants and one before vowels. Perfectly normal, like adding an extra syllable to plurals after a final /s/ or /z/. As to the OQ, /ði/ is the usual stressed variant and if the article is being emphasized, that's what'll normally come out. /ðə/ may be used as a default version by some people, but -- as witness previous comments -- no native speaker will ever notice the details. – John Lawler Aug 18 '14 at 17:06
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    There are a few English dialects where unstressed the is pronounced [ðə] before all words. Speakers of these dialects pronounce it this way automatically. – Peter Shor Aug 18 '14 at 17:10
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    Related: What is the pronunciation of “the”? – choster Aug 18 '14 at 19:16
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To summarize the discussion here and elsewhere:

In contrast to the pronunciation-based distinction between a and an, the pronunciation of "the" is not strictly determined by the pronunciation of the following word. The guidelines in, for example, the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary are in fact just guidelines for non-native speakers. If one listens closely to native speakers, it becomes obvious that [ðə] and [ði] are chosen relatively freely, irrespective of the following word. Hence, it is interesting that people who learn English as a foreign language are usually told by teachers and textbooks that the pronunciation of "the" follows the same strict rule as the distinction between a and an. This misconception can even be found on English language sites such as here.

A similar answer was given here.

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    It's not that remarkable ... there are some dialects of English that follow the rule that is taught in ESL. And you don't want to teach foreigners to always say /ði/, because that's going to sound bad. And you don't want to teach them to say /ðə əpɑrtmənt/, because that's hard to pronounce. – Peter Shor Oct 10 '14 at 10:31
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    Thank you @PeterShor. I changed remarkable to interesting. – painfulenglish Oct 10 '14 at 10:32
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    The and a(n) are entirely parallel: the variation in their pronunciation is dictated by the following sound, and some dialects/speakers do not display any variation at all. Just like there are people who say /ðə/ before a vowel, there are also speakers/dialects who say /ə/ before a vowel. And to most people, the variants are not chosen freely but based on the simple, pronunciation-based rule. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 22 '17 at 20:04
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For rather a lot of English there are "rather simple rules" that are flat out wrong (the order of the letters "i" and "e" when together is my favorite example). You just have to memorize them.

In the case of "The", it is often pronounced with the long E sound for emphasis, which means that the same phrase might use a different pronunciation depending on the point the speaker wants to get across. The point of emphasis is often if the speaker wants to draw attention to the fact that it is somehow unique.

For example there's "The Ohio State University". If someone is just rattling off its official name, typically you'd hear the softer sound. However, many people are kind of annoyed at how insistent they are about the "The" at the front of the name (most US universities don't do that), so I often hear it pronounced with the harsher long E sound (and the entire word "The" louder than the rest of the name).

  • Thanks. I'm aware of the variations for the purpose of emphasis, but those do not explain the pronunciation used in, for example, American TV series and movies. – painfulenglish Oct 10 '14 at 13:26
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The pronunciation ending with a long -e sound before a vowel also serves as what is termed "liaison" in speaking French. In English, using the long -e before a vowel, we can smoothly say "the eggs" (approximately, "thee-yeggs") instead of using a glottal stop: ("the [glottal stop] eggs").

  • I agree. However, if you, for example, compare different versions of Sinatra's "Love and Marriage", you will note that he sometimes pronounces "the" in "the other" as [ðə], even though [ði] seems to be easier to say and sing. – painfulenglish Aug 18 '14 at 17:33
  • this is why i don't think it matters very much. native speakers differ their pronunciation of the based on more than just the succedent word (e.g. for emphasis or effect, or just as a personal habit), and we do this often. it really doesn't matter that much when you pronounce which way. a v. an matters WAY more in speech. – ell Aug 18 '14 at 18:16
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I can't find a rule anywhere. But based on some experiments in the last few minutes, I conclude that the short vowel before a vowel sound may just be a contraction or elision of the vowel sound. I might say "the eggs" with a long e, but what sounds like a short e is probably actually "th' eggs", pronounced with one syllable, not two.

[I'm in Texas, where slurrin's a fact o' life. That may make a diff'rence.]

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Those speakers who do not use the pronunciation "thee" for the generally do not have words that begin with a vowel. They use a glottal stop before what is an initial vowel for most speakers. These same people are often heard to use a where the "correct" article would be an. This is usually a regionalism that school teachers were unsuccessful in beating out of their students.

  • Useful additional info; do you have a source though? Looking at my own dialect, this phenomenon (starting vowel-initial words with a glottal stop, using "a" where "an" would be standard) seems to exist, but for me it's certainly not systematic. The wording of your answer suggests that it is for some English speakers; how do you know? Is this true for you, or have you read it somewhere? – sumelic Sep 3 '15 at 3:36
  • It's not true for me or family members I grew up with, but growing up, I remember hearing this from people in both the South (parts of Kentucky and Tennessee) and in northern Ohio and southern Michigan (where I went to high school and college). I've always been fascinated by the way people talk, and I noticed the glottal stops early on. – Gary Clay Rector Sep 6 '15 at 11:23

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