The is such a simple word that you probably never think about it. You use it many times everyday, but what exactly is it?
It’s an article, a word which is used before a noun, to give more information about it. There are two types of article in English: indefinite (a, an), usually used to refer to a single non-specific object; and definite (the), used to refer to something specific, unique, or known to the listener. The definite article also differs from the indefinite article in that we can use it for both singular (the dog) and plural nouns (the dogs).
Using articles is something we do unconsciously. Think about how we shift easily from using an indefinite article when we introduce something to using the definite article when we mention it a second time, when it’s become a known quantity:
I had a great steak in the restaurant last night. All the food was great, but the steak was particularly good.
All pretty straightforward, but perhaps the most interesting thing about the is that it has two pronunciations. You can probably think of them: the garden variety shorter /ðə/, and the longer /ði:/, which sounds like thee. Why do we have two pronunciations for the? One reason is that we can use /ði:/ in an emphatic sense, e.g.
That was the best steak I’ve ever had!
The main reason though is having two pronunciations makes our speech flow much more smoothly. /ði:/ is more common, used before a consonant sound (the dog). We use /ði:/ before vowel sounds (the English dog) as it helps the two sounds flow together much more smoothly. Try using the short pronunciation of the before a vowel sound to see how awkward it is. Note though, that we use it before a vowel sound, but not always before a vowel. For example: the European Union, the United Kingdom/States, the university. All of the above begin with vowels, but have a consonant sound (/j/, like the letter y). Therefore, we use the short pronunciation of the. And it’s only fair to point out that when I say we, I mean most English speakers, as some accents will use the short form of the before a vowel sound, with a glottal stop filling the gap between the two (similarly, some people use a before a word with a vowel sound).
What’s interesting about such basic aspects of how we use English as this is how difficult they can be to explain. Or even to realise that they’re something that might need to be explained to a learner of English. We use the different sounds of the so instinctively that it can be hard to take a step back and think about when and why we use the two different sounds. And unless someone does a very intensive teacher-training course, it’s not the kind of thing that an English teacher will be taught before they start teaching. In reality, there are a lot of things that you have to pick up as you go along when you teach English, as there are so many aspects of the language that it’s not feasible to learn absolutely everything before you start teaching. The different sounds of the is one such aspect that I realised one day in the middle of a lesson, and have brought up regularly in other lessons since. I was quite happy to have noticed this, because I think that one of the most important things about being a good language teacher is the ability to spot patterns in a language, and then explain them clearly to people unfamiliar with those patterns.
Even if you’re not a language teacher or student, it’s always useful to step back for a moment occasionally and think about some aspect of your language, and try to think about why it is they way it is. It might give you an interesting insight into the words you take for granted.