Stressed and unstressed ‘the’ and ‘a’ in English (the strong form of articles)

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

Articles in English have three different forms (at least in pronunciation). If “a” or “the” are followed by a vowel, they change to “an” and “thee” (“the” is still written as “the”, but the pronunciation changes to /ði/).

However, there’s also a third form, sometimes called the strong form. The strong form of the indefinite article is “a”, pronounced as “ey” //, and the strong form of “the” is “the”, pronounced as “theee” /ðiː/. I intentionally used three “E”s to underline the fact that there’s a difference between pronunciation of the strong form of “the” and pronunciation of “the” before a vowel; namely that “ee” in the strong form is longer than before a vowel.

Of course, this information would be useless if I didn’t tell you when to use the strong form. It is used in two different situations:

  1. When you want to contrast a particular article with the other one (often when correcting someone).
  2. When you keep repeating the article because you can’t find the right noun that should follow it.

Consider the following dialogue:

A: Did you find the cat?
B: I found a (ey) cat.
A: Oh, I am sorry.
B: I don’t mind. I like it more than the previous one.

A asks whether B found the cat (presumably lost) he was looking for. B answers that he found some cat, implying it wasn’t the one A meant. The “a” (“ey”) [] is contrasted with “the” used in the question and is to be understood as “some other”. Similarly, “the” can be contrasted with “a”:

A: Did you find a job?
B: I found the (theee) job.
A: The (theee) job?
B: Yeah, if I was born for a job, this is the one.

Here, B expresses his very positive attitude towards the job; he considers it a one-of-a-kind job. Notice that we’ve indicated the emphasis using italics, which is common in literature (as well as using a bold typeface). Accentuated articles can be also underlined in handwriting.

The last two examples should give you an idea of how to use the strong form to contrast “a” and “the”. Here’s an example of the other type of usageA and B are people who can’t recall the word “pencil” (perhaps because they are not native speakers) and they are trying to fill the silence:

A: Could you give me ey… ey… uhm… a “writing stick”?
B: Do you mean theee… theee… the pencil I’m holding in my hand?

This way of using the strong form of articles can be found only in the spoken language. There’s no reason to use “theee… theee…” in the written form, since you can simply wait until you find the right word. If you want to transcribe it from the spoken form, use just “a” and “the” (without italics or other formatting changes).

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.