The Two Types of English Articles

In English there are two  articles, the indefinite and the definite article. The indefinite articles are “a” and “an”, used before consonant and vowel sounds respectively. The definite article is “the”, and is used in writing  consistently before consonant and vowel sounds.

The definite article is usually used when the listener or reader can identify the person, object or place being talked about. For example: “The man next to you is from Japan.” In this sentence, the listener can understand that the speaker is talking about a specific person sitting next to him or her. It is also used when the thing being talked about has already been mentioned.

 For example: “I have a cat. The cat is fluffy.” Here the listener understands the speaker’s cat is fluffy, while  also inferring the speaker is not  applying this adjective to cats in general. The definite article is also used to talk about a single entity of a particular type. For example, it wouldn’t be wrong to speak of our sun as “the sun”. However, if we had two moons,  we wouldn’t be speaking of either of the two moons as “the moon”. Notice that it is correct to use “the” for both moons together.

Examining the Definite Article

 The definite article “the” is widely mispronounced by native and non native English speakers. This mispronunciation occurs because the speaker is either unaware of the two distinct pronunciations for the definitive article “the” or doesn’t wish to differentiate between them when appropriate. Nevertheless, there are two ways to pronounce the article “the” using either the weak or strong form of pronunciation, with the weak form of the article being pronounced as a “thuh” using the neutralized schwa sound as in the word pup.  By contrast, the strong pronunciation of the definite article is pronounced exactly like the word “thee”, which rhymes with “bee”, “me”, and “see”.

“The” is pronounced weakly with words that begin with a consonant e.g. the lady, the White House etc., or a vowel that sounds like a consonant e.g. the university, the European etc. Conversely, the strong pronunciation of “the” is used before words that begin with a vowel e.g. the oranges, the apples, the able bodied man etc., or a consonant that sounds like a vowel e.g. the hour, the heir apparent, the honest man etc.

A Matter of Emphasis

The strong pronunciation of “the” is also used to put stress on the succeeding word e.g. “I met Mr. Obama today.” “Surely, you don’t mean the President”. Here “President” is stressed even further by using the strong “the”. Unlike the indefinite articles which differ in their spelling and are thus altogether completely different in verbal and written contexts, the definite article “the” is singular in written English. There is no change in the way we write “the” in “the apple” or “the cottage”. Notice that while we pronounce both definite articles differently, the spelling of both them is the same.