11 Pronouncing a and the

 

Most of this particular section has been taken from the book Typical Errors in English, but it is well worth repeating here.

 

But first, I would like you to read the nonsense story below, particularly if there is a native speaker or a very experienced speaker of English with you:

 

There was a restaurant in the house. Yes! A RESTAURANT! In the house! A man went into the restaurant and asked for the menu. A waiter brought the menu. ‘This is,’ began the man, ‘in my opinion, the most important event of the day. I’d like to order the omelette, and the fish, the apple pie, the chocolate pudding, and… listen carefully… A! BAG! OF! NUTS!. Then I’m off to meet David Beckham. YES! The David Beckham!’

 

In general terms of learning English, this example is perhaps not very high in the list of priorities to get right. But students have often asked me about the pronunciation of a and the in texts, as they often hear variations. Do we say ‘a’ /æ/ as in apple, or ‘A’ /eɪ/ as in able?  When do we say the /ðʌ/ or thee /ðiː/ ?

 

You pronounce a as in animal, at, atom before a countable noun or noun phrase that begins with a consonant sound: a banana, a cat, a dog, a fish, etc. (Vowel sounds are, of course, preceded with an.)

 

But you can pronounce A as in able, ate, ape, alien if you hesitate, or if you are pausing to think about what to say:

He’s got a, er, A caravan, I think.

 

And you can make the same pronunciation (as in able, ate, ape, alien) if you want to put stress or emphasis on the following word: Listen, Kowalski! You have to make A. REAL. EFFORT. in this test!

 

Now you pronounce THE as thuh /ðʌ/, before a noun or noun phrase that begins with a consonant sound: The banana. The cat. The dog. The fish.

 

You pronounce THE as thee, as in ‘these’ /ðiː/ before a noun that begins with a vowel sound: The apple. The egg. The hour. The ice cream. The X-Factor.

 

The (thee) /ðiː/ is also used to emphasize the noun that follows (including names) to stress its importance or difference:

The Royal Wedding was the event of 2012. Are you really the David Beckham or just somebody with the same name?

 

Now read that paragraph again, with the stress on the articles underlined:

There was a restaurant in the house. Yes! A RESTAURANT! In the house! A man went into the restaurant and asked for the menu. A waiter brought the menu. ‘This is,’ began the man, ‘in my opinion, the most important event of the day. I’d like to order the omelette, and the fish, the apple pie, the chocolate pudding, and… listen carefully… A! BAG! OF! NUTS!. Then I’m off to meet David Beckham. YES! The David Beckham!’

 

And that is it. The general rules. There are still a few examples that I still have not completely covered, but these are the exceptions – I hope!

 

If you have any comments to make, suggestions, or you do not agree with me, then do contact me.

 

So are you now an a/an/the/zero article expert? Well, you are perhaps now a lot wiser about these particular determiners, and with practice… !

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