The? Thee? Who Knew? A Listener, That's Who : Memmos Standards & Practices Editor Mark Memmott writes occasional notes about the issues journalists encounter and the way NPR handles them. They often expand on topics covered in the Ethics Handbook.
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The? Thee? Who Knew? A Listener, That's Who

This note is NOT a directive to change the way you say "the" (unless you want to after reading on).

It's JUST a reminder about the close attention some listeners pay to what they hear.

An email came in today that reads, in part: "I have noticed that a lot of the younger generation tends to pronounce 'the' the same way always. ... [But] it is customary, and so much more pleasant sounding, to pronounce 'the' when followed by a word beginning with a vowel sound, as 'thee.'"

Apparently, this listener heard us say "the" on the air when she thinks it should have been "thee."

She would say, for example, it's "thee apple fell from the tree," not "the apple fell from the tree."

I don't remember being told about this in elementary school, but others here do. Our preferred dictionary backs up the emailer:

"the: before consonants usually thə, before vowels usually thē."

NPR hosts and correspondents try hard to say words correctly and we give all sorts of guidance about pronunciations.

Still, a "thou must say thee" prime directive seems like overkill. As Jonathan Kern's Sound Reporting says, radio reporters "need to be themselves, and to read with the same intensity and cadence and music in their voices that they exhibit outside the studio." Thinking too much about the way to say "the" might mess things up.

But the email underscores how even the littlest of things matter to listeners and readers. The big things, of course, matter a lot.

Now, about "nil" vs. "zero." ...

Maybe we won't go there.