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It's all about that schwa

When deciding whether to say “thee” as opposed to “the” [pronounced thuh], it’s about more than just sounding fancy, says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. 

Not too long ago, Curzan received an email outing her for saying “the” [thuh] instead of “thee,” a pet peeve of the listener. But it’s more complicated than one is always right and the other is always wrong. In fact, both pronunciations are legitimate and have their time and place.

“What’s going on here is that there are two pronunciations of the or ‘thee’, t-h-e, and it's based on what the following word is,” Curzan explains. “If the next word begins with a vowel, most of us will tend to say ‘thee’ as in ‘thee umbrella’ ‘thee office.’ If the next word starts with a consonant, most of us will tend to say ‘thuh,’ as in, ‘the phone,’ ‘the radio,’ ‘the cat in the hat.’”

Sounds simple enough, but of course there is an exception. Curzan says if the word “the” is being stressed or emphasized, we tend to say “thee.”

“So if I’m talking about the Cat in the Hat, and you say, ‘Wait! Are you talking about thee Cat in the Hat’… Then we will tend to get that ‘thee’ pronunciation.”

And then there is the schwa.

Schwa comes from Hebrew origins and refers to the sound we make when using unstressed syllables – “uh.” In English, many times when a syllable is unstressed, the vowel will change to the “uh” sound, and different unstressed vowels can show up as schwa, says Curzan.

“For example, if you think about the word ‘about,’ the first syllable of that is a schwa. ‘Uh-bout’ spelled with an ‘a.’ But if you think about what I do for a living, I’m a professor, and the first syllable of that also has the schwa – “pruh-fessor,” but that’s spelled with an ‘o.’ So you can get different spellings with the schwa.”

Complicated? A little bit. But not when it comes to actually saying the words, says Curzan. There are those who argue schwa is actually the easiest vowel to say.  Unlike vowels like “e” and “ah” where you have to manipulate the shape of your mouth and correctly place your tongue, “uh” only requires you to put your tongue in the middle of your mouth and make a vowel.

In the end, when it comes down to “thuh” versus “thee,” it’s all about the schwa.

Michigan Radio Newsroom – Cheyna Roth

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.