You’re Probably Pronouncing “The” Wrong at Least 50 Percent of the Time

Why does nobody teach this grammar rule?

“The.” It’s the single most common word in the English language, according to Oxford Dictionaries, and one of just 50 words Dr. Seuss included in his early-reading classic, Green Eggs and Ham. It’s a word we all know and all use every single day. So why did nobody teach us how to pronounce it correctly?

You're-Probably-Pronouncing-'The'-Wrong-50%-of-The-TimeTatiana Ayazo /

“What do you mean? It’s thuh,” you may be yelling at your screen right now. “It’s pronounced thuh, like DUH.” And the good news is you’re right—half of the time. Because, as we know, little words can be big trouble (with more than 645 definitions, the most complicated word in English is only three letters long). And “the” is no exception.

It turns our that “the” is actually a context-sensitive word, much like a/an, that changes pronunciation based on its surroundings. As language blogger Mignon Fogarty points out on her Grammar Girl website, the official Merriam-Webster definition of “the” breaks down the correct pronunciation like this:

1. Pronounce it “thuh” only when the following word begins with a consonant sound.

You're-Probably-Pronouncing-'The'-Wrong-50%-of-The-TimeTatiana Ayazo /

2. Pronounce it “thee” when the following word begins with a vowel sound.

You're-Probably-Pronouncing-'The'-Wrong-50%-of-The-TimeTatiana Ayazo /

So, to put this in context, you could dump out thuh cat’s litter box in your neighbor’s yard, and lie to thee authorities about it when they come knocking later. Look it up in thuh dictionary if you don’t believe us, and corroborate it in thee Encyclopedia. No use calling thuh Grammar Police; it’s thee official rule.

It’s important to note, however, that it isn’t just the first letter of the following word that dictates the’s pronunciation, but the sound that letter makes. For example, you’d opine on the mysteries of thuh universe, because the “u” in “universe” is voiced as a hard “y,” even though it’s technically a vowel. Likewise, you’d apply for membership with thee NRA, because the “N” starts with a vowel sound (keep this in mind if your membership gets approved—I hear members of that particular group love being corrected.)

If you’ve never heard this rule before, you’re not alone (the Reader’s Digest editorial team—a group of 20 or so professional word nerds—was equally in thuh dark). It seems this lesson is overlooked in many classrooms, possibly because it’s one of those grammar rules we all somehow know without really knowing, like the secret rule of arranging adjectives in sentences, and something we pick up naturally the more we speak.

One sort of classroom stands out, though, according to Grammar Girl. “A lot of [my readers] said they were taught this rule in choir classes,” Fogarty writes. “I never took choir, so maybe that’s why I didn’t know.”

So, whether or not you can sing, get out there and correct thuh grammar of everyone you know. It’s thee English thing to do. While you’re at it, test your genius with some mind-boggling trivia questions.

Working on your writing? Avoid these overused words. 

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