Do you say "the" or "thee" – UPDATES!

Growing up, I was taught that when you are following the word T-H-E with a word that begins with a vowel, then the correct (and, to my ear) more pleasant pronunciation was “thee” – long e.

As in “please don’t feed thee animals.” One would never say, “please don’t feed thuh animals.”

I notice an increasing trend the other way, though. Even in the video of Miss California, below, I note it.

I hear it on television and in my own family. My sister recently talked about “theh old people.” It grates on my ears. It is a clunky use of language, and I don’t like it.

Am I too fussy? What do you say? When it precedes a word beginning in a vowel, do you go with “thee” or “thuh?”

For instance, how would you read The Empty Symbolism of Hate Crimes Legislation?

Thuh Empty? Thee Empty?

There will be a test. No math.

UPDATE: Little Miss Attila (who, like me, also loves the semi-colon) has some clever fun with this. And I suspect Neo will, too.


About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Sissy Willis

    How do I love THEE? It’s THEE apple of my eye.

  • Joe Odegaard

    As it is more beautiful to say “thee” animals, it is better to say “thee” animals, because anyone who can create beauty has an obligation to make the world more beautiful. Now it is a small talent we are speaking of here, yet still important. We all need beauty, and ugliness wears anyone down.

  • Regina

    Thee Angels. Thuh Saints.

  • ShanaSFO

    THEE animals, THEE End.

    It is how I was taught as well.

  • SAM

    Thee not Thuh.

    When I hear thuh before a vowell I think of the south side Chicago natives that say Da Bears.

  • SAM

    Thuh is clunky before a word beginning with a vowell because the tongue movement doesn’t flow right — it’s awkward. When you learn another language like spanish it makes it more obvious why certain combinations of words are phrased the way they are in every language and a lot of it has to do with making the language less cumbersome and flow properly. In spanish “of the” with a masculine noun is pronounced del instead of the more cumbersome de el. So “of the king” is del rey instead of de el rey.

    And in english the same is done with a and an, so that we avoid word combinations like “a elephant” in favor of “an elephant.” It’s much easier to say and flows better.

  • MamaTod

    It must be a regional thing, because here in Michigan it’s “thuh” all the time. “Thee” is for King James Version Bible reading only. ;)

  • dmd25

    You are not too fussy, Anchoress!!! In fact we talked about this in choir a couple of weeks ago when someone asked about which was correct. Keep it up!

  • Mimsy

    Of course, you are correct. Word junkies win!
    And don’t forget what Keats said:
    ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

  • cathyf

    In Chicago it may be da Bears and da Bulls, but it is certainly dee ‘L’ and dee airport…

    (Guy goes up on the L platform as a train comes into the station. The conductor gets off, and the guy asks, “hey, does dis train go to da Loop?” The conductor replies, “No, it goes beep beep.”)

  • kelleybee

    Mathematically non speaking…thee for me wins every time. I didn’t know it was a ‘rule’…ir is the correct usage for my ear. My ‘ear’ taught me how to read. I would read what the words I knew on the page and would ‘listen’ for the word I didn’t know…I realize that the last makes no sense, but that is how I learned to read.
    Thanks for vespers.

  • Joseph

    To my ear, I don’t think you have the right phonetic spelling of “thuh”. The ending, at least in my basic dialect [South Midland], is unvocalized and would be phonetically spelled as th’. My own habit, from I know not where, is actually to use both pronunciations, “thee” in front of a vowel as in Thee Arizona dessert, but th’ in front of a consonant, as in Th’ California Condor. If I remember correctly, the th’ contraction is widely used by Shakespeare and more isolated Ohio South Midland areas contains many Elizabethan archaisms, particularly much less constrained conventions of word order than most other English.

    But Ohio itself is polyglot, with four distinct dialects between Cleveland and the Ohio River, and a boundary merger of them somewhere around Canton. These are Pittsburg/Youngstown/Erie in an Eastern slice of the state; Inland North of Buffalo/Cleveland/Detroit, concentrated in the Greater Cleveland area; Northern Midland between I-70 and the Michigan border; and Southern Midland between I-70 and the Ohio River. Virtually every Columbus, Ohio speaker like myself picks up some elements from each of these dialects because students at Ohio State University [about 40,000 at any given time] come from all areas of the state and interact extensively with each other at an age when dialect and vocabulary are still quite fluid.

  • California Girl

    I was never “taught” to do that–I heard the “rule” in a college linguistics class and realized, “Hey, I DO say thee before vowels! I never noticed that before!” I thought it was fascinating–what part of my brain was looking at the first letter of the next word while I was still in the process of saying the word “the”?

    Since I wasn’t explicitly taught the rule, it must be something that I learned through hearing. And if people are getting away from that habit, then it probably won’t be learned by the next generation.

  • Hantchu

    Ah agree with MamaTod. It must be a regional thang. Howevah, SOME regional speech is moah equal than othas.

  • Ellen

    I make the distinction between thee and thuh. But let me ask you this – in words beginning with H do you say a or an?

    [It is an honor and a privilege to say "an" when followed by a silent-h. That is a handy guide. ;-) Admin]

  • DonnaC

    Ouch, I think this is directly related to age… I’m a big proponent of semi-colons and the proper use of gerunds, as well. I still flinch when I see a sign for “fresh ground beef,” because I was taught it should be “freshly ground beef!” Actually, I guess it could be “fresh ground;” but then would you want “stale ground?”

  • Joseph

    I don’t know, Anchoress…I strongly suspect that the cockney pattern of adding and dropping of h’s is the original English form and that the h in house and honor got shoved in there by some impertinent scholar like Dr. Johnson trying to make the language “tonier”, as my Oklahoma friends say, leaving everybody completely confused as most of his spellings have. “Eggs” was probably tonier than “eyen” which was also available to him but you can’t have an omlette [homlette?] without breaking eggs and you can’t ‘ave eggs without breaking eyen.

  • Jenny

    I was taught in school that ‘the’ was always ‘thuh’ and the only time you said ‘thee’ was if the word was actually ‘thee.’ Now that is not the way I speak or the way anyone else I know speaks. That rule always seemed wrong to me, but I figured using ‘thee’ was just another Southern colloquialism and I was happy to continue, yall.

    I remember the lesson because the teacher’s example was “The End.” She said that everyone should be saying “thuh end.” I thought that sounded weird and wondered how it was that the whole world was wrong. I blew it off and continued to speak the way I wanted.

  • Peregrine John

    Oh, for crying out loud.

    Look, it’s all about sonority, not seniority. Use the schwa (any schwa, actually) before a consonant and the long “ee” before a vowel, even another long e. (Silent letters, by definition, do not affect sonority and should be ignored for these considerations.) A choir must agree on a schwa enunciation, and decide whether to separate 2 long e vowels with a glottal stop or palatalization, but most people will automatically do the right one if not badly influenced by loons like Jenny’s teacher.

    Likewise, the handy guide at comment 15. “An” is sonorous before most vowels; “a” is not, and should be before a consonant OR palatalized vowel (the “yuh” sound a lot of words begin with); silent consonants are obviously irrelevant to the case and should be ignored; anyone who says “an union” or “an youth” needs their head examined.

    For what it’s worth, Italian has some similar things, like “e” (“and”) and “o” (“or”) becoming “ed” and “od” before words beginning with vowels. I imagine other languages do, too.

  • Jean Balconi

    I have to disagree with MamaTod about Michigan. In my area, it’s “thee” before vowels. In the Upper Peninsula, it might be “duh” as in “It’s duh anniversary of our weddin’.” (Although Yooper sounds better than it looks typed.)

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  • cardeblu

    It all depends on what the next word is or what inflection I wish to use. In the corner for “thuh,” there’s always this: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.”.

  • MamaTod

    Jean B. I’m not a yooper. ;) I will grudgingly admit though that there is some sort of grammatical deficiency here because several families in a nearby town (families as in they settled here a hundred years ago and passed this problem down) use “seen” incorrectly ALL the time. For example, “I seen her at the mall.” Now THAT is grating!

  • Mimsy

    I, too, beef about the gerund. It’s freshly ground beef or fresh-ground beef. And don’t get me started on how avocado is nearly always misspelled in grocery stores. And also, please remember that quotation marks go inside the exclamation mark and the question mark, unless the quotation is a quoted question or exclamation!

  • March Hare

    “Thee” apple; “thuh” banana. But I was taught by Irish Sisters from the old country, so what do I know?

    Mimsy: Apparently the rules about whether punctuation marks go inside or outside quotes has changed. Current usage (per the Associated Press Handbook, which is some sort of grammatical Bible) deems that punctuation marks go inside the quotes. I know, it doesn’t make sense to me, either. This is the same AP Handbook that has deemed that personal pronouns referring to God (Father, Son, or Spirit) do not have to be capitalized: Jesus, his Son. That just looks wrong to me (or should that be “wrongly”? ;)).

    Now: is it A-men or Ah-men? This came up at a lectors’ meeting recently.

  • Elizabeth Anne

    It’s not really a rule, per se: it’s an avoidance of hiatus. If you say the (short e) elephant, you have to stop your breath in between the two, and it’s awkward. English speakers thus either insert a “y” sound in between and lengthen the first “e” the way you’re describing, or elide the first vowel into the second. If you lengthen the “E” and pay close attention to what you do with the back of your tongue, you’ll find that you actually pronounce it something kinda like this: “the yelephant” or “the yumbrella”. If you keep it short, you do something like this: “Th’elephant”. ELision, however, is dangerously close to a contraction, and should be avoided for formal speech.

    (March Hare – it’s “Jesus, his Son” because pronouns are never capitalized, unless they come at the beginning of a sentence.)

  • cathyf

    So, this thread is going on 27 comments, while every other thread is in single digits. Not sure that says anything about the Anchoress (pronounced “thee Anchoress”) but it sure does say something about us!

    [I think it means everyone is really tired of serious, scary news, and would like to think about something less urgent, but still interesting. Or...that we all have fetishes about our words! -admin]

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  • Ornithophobe

    I had never even heard that there actually is some sort of rule on long or short ‘e’ pronunciation in the word “the”. I just thought it was in free variation. I’ve been sitting here saying words, trying to puzzle it out, and it does seem I’ve a tendency toward “thee apple” or “thuh” banana. That’s probably just based on the principle of least effort- it’s easier to hit that following sound when your mouth is arranged the right way; consonant set up works better with a short e, vowel setup with a long one.

  • silverpie

    “That just looks wrong to me (or should that be “wrongly”? ;)).”

    “Looks wrong” is correct. “Looks wrongly” would imply that the phrase is capable of seeing, and is using that ability for bad purposes. (It would constitute the same error as “feel badly.”)

    “(March Hare – it’s “Jesus, his Son” because pronouns are never capitalized, unless they come at the beginning of a sentence.)”

    Except that there is another traditional rule that pronouns *are* capitalized, just as nouns are, if they refer to any of the three Persons of God.

    And on “a” v. “an,” I agree that it’s strictly the next sound that matters. I can live with people saying “an historic,” since that one special case has historical support, but would never say it that way myself.

  • Windswept

    I definitely say “thee” when appropriate and English is my second language.

  • jakewashere

    The way it’s done out here in Arizona — or at least in my family — is that “thuh” is used before words beginning with a consonant, and something closer to “thee” is used before words beginning with vowels. So, for example, the two occurrences of “the” in “the way” and “the only way” are pronounced differently.

    I think Elizabeth Ann hit on the reason for the difference. The two vowels slide together more neatly. Pronouncing it “thuh only way” brings in a sort of miniature glottal stop between the two words, which doesn’t sound good to my ear when I try it. (‘Hiatus’, I suppose. I knew there had to be a linguistics term for it, but I didn’t know what it was.)

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  • btsea

    I never say thee, and I rarely hear anyone say it on the West coast. But I was taught the rule by a high school English teacher who grew up (I believe) in Montana.

    I think it sounds good in poetry. In ordinary speaking, maybe it would sound good if I were used to saying and hearing it! Perhaps my ear needs to become more cultured. ;)

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