Why "The" Is The Most Important Word In The English Language

Keep reading for grammar and pronunciation rules for the most-used word in the English language.

So, you want to improve your pronunciation in English, but you don't know where to start. Let me introduce myself. I’m Sean Morgan, a professional English tutor who specializes in American accent pronunciation. I have over 30 students from every continent except Antarctica. I’m happy to say that there are universal ways to improve your English pronunciation. Although each language learner has a unique set of challenges with pronunciation according to their native language and personal abilities, I have noticed many commonalities among non-native English language learners regarding pronunciation.

Pronunciation is a huge subject and cannot be covered in one article, so I will give you a great tip that can remove a sizable portion of your accent in a short amount of time. Perhaps you have heard that a shortcut to language acquisition is to focus on the words that are used most often by native speakers. The same rule applies to pronunciation. By now you already know the meaning of the most-used word in the English language (the), but perhaps you don't know its two versions of pronunciation. I am an American, so I will focus on the American accent; however, the differences between the American and British pronunciation are not very significant in this case (but noticeable to those who care).

Let's start at the beginning of the word with the "th" sound. This can be a difficult sound for non-native English-speakers. There are two versions of this sound. We will focus on the vibratory version, not the soft version used in the word "thank". This vibratory version has a buzzing quality similar to "z" or "v". It involves several steps.

First, stick your tongue out of your mouth slightly. Your mouth should open but your tongue should rest low in your mouth. The tip of your tongue passes the bottom row of teeth and should rest gently on them.

Next, rest the top row of your teeth gently on your tongue (near the tip). Your lips and tongue should remain in a relaxed resting state. It's important not to create tension or shape your mouth in any way. Your lips are separated, but not pursed.

The third and last step is to force a breath of air (without mouth movement) so that there is a vibration between the top row of your teeth and your tongue. I have three tips to make this effective. First, allow your tongue and teeth to touch slightly, but do not allow them to get too far apart or too clamped down. The second tip is to keep the sound in your throat low; it will be easier than a high "th" sound which is not used in English anyway. The third tip is to not allow your cheeks or upper lip to fill with air. Relax your mouth, but keep the basic structure or integrity of your mouth solid enough to focus the air to the teeth and tongue section.

The most common pronunciation of "the" is with an "uh" vowel sound. The same vowel sound that is in "run" or "fun". Try pronouncing the combination of "th" and "uh" right now. The sound should be very low in your throat. The second vowel sound is the long "e" vowel sound such as in the words "bee" or "see". This sound is not as low in the throat. It may be easier if you force a smile with your mouth for this sound.

So, how does one know which way to pronounce this common word? The rule is easy, but the habit may be difficult to start, especially if you have only been using one pronunciation instead of the two different versions. If the word following "the" starts with a vowel, such as "apple", you use the "ee" sound. If it starts with a consonant, such as "car", you use the "uh" sound.

Once again, it is correct to say (phonetic spelling) "thee apple" and "thuh car". Many native speakers do not follow this rule every time (but they should). Also, if a person is searching for a word to say in their mind, they may start saying "thee" and decide on a word that starts with a consonant. By that time, it is too late to go back in time and choose the correct pronunciation of the article. It is an important rule, but one that is not followed strictly.

One exception to the rule that I will mention is that English speakers will use "thee" for emphasis to describe that someone is the best at something. Example: Michael Jordan is "thee" basketball player of the 1990s. Or Vera Wang is "thee" wedding dress designer for celebrities.

Thank you for reading. Remember, your effort in “thuh” practice is “thee” only thing that matters.

April 19, 2016