Q: As a youngster, it was drilled into me that the word “the” is pronounced THUH in front of a consonant (i.e., “the car”), but THEE in front of a vowel (“the other car”). Yet lately I hear news anchors use THUH before vowels. Is this now acceptable? Or did these people fail their English courses?
A: The pronunciation of the definite article “the” is determined by the sound of the following word (not merely by the letter the word starts with).
Most of us pronounce “the” with a long “e” before a vowel sound (as in “THEE apple” … “THEE hour” … “THEE umbrella”), and when stressed for emphasis (as in “This is THEE movie to see”).
We usually pronounce it THUH (like the “a” in “about”) before a consonant sound (as in “THUH ball” … “THUH uniform” … “THUH one” … “THUH Europeans” … “THUH hotel”).
Remember, the issue here is whether the following word begins with a vowel or consonant sound, not whether it begins with an actual vowel or consonant.
By the way, this isn’t some arbitrary rule thought up by the language police to make life hard for us. Rather, it has become a rule because it’s the natural way to pronounce “the.”
With most people, this is automatic. It’s much easier to say THEE before a vowel sound than to pronounce two UH sounds in a row (as in “THUH other”).
In other words, THEE and THUH evolved as common practice, and dictionaries list them as differing pronunciations of “the” before vowel and consonant sounds.
These are the standard pronunciations given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).
However, M-W does note that THUH is also heard sometimes before vowel sounds. So that pronunciation, while unusual (and, I think, awkward), isn’t considered incorrect – at least by Merriam-Webster’s.
You didn’t ask, but the indefinite article “a” also has two pronunciations. It’s generally pronounced UH (like the “a” in “about”). But it’s pronounced with a long “a” sound (as in “day”) when it’s stressed for emphasis: “Did you say you had caught AY fish or several fish?”