In most dialects, "the" is pronounced as /ðə/ (with the voiced dental fricative /ð/ followed by a schwa) when followed by a consonant sound, and as /ðiː/ (homophonous with thee) when followed by a vowel sound or used as an emphatic form. In modern American English, however, there is an increasing tendency to limit the usage of the latter pronunciation to emphatic purposes and use the former even before a vowel. The same change is happening in New Zealand English.
In some Northern England dialects of English, the is pronounced [t̪ə] (with a dental t) or as a glottal stop, usually written in eye dialect as ⟨t⟩; in some dialects it reduces to nothing. This is known as definite article reduction.
In dialects that do not have the voiced dental fricative /ð/, the is pronounced with the voiced dental plosive, as in /d̪ə/ or /d̪iː/).
The and that are common developments from the same Old English system. Old English had a definite article se (in the masculine gender), sēo (feminine), and þæt (neuter). In Middle English, these had all merged into þe, the ancestor of the Modern English word the.
The principles of the use of the definite article in English are described under "Use of articles". The word the as in phrases like "the more the better", has a distinct origin and etymology and by chance has evolved to be identical to the definite article. (See the Wiktionary entry the.)
An area in which the use or non-use of the is sometimes problematic is with geographic names. Names of rivers, seas, mountain ranges, deserts, island groups (archipelagoes) and the like are generally used with the definite article (the Rhine, the North Sea, the Alps, the Sahara, the Hebrides).
Names of continents, individual islands, countries, regions, administrative units, cities and towns mostly do not take the article (Europe, Skye, Austria, Scandinavia, Yorkshire, Madrid). However, there are certain exceptions:
Since "the" is one of the most frequently used words in English, at various times short abbreviations for it have been found:
Occasional proposals have been made by individuals for an abbreviation. In 1916, Legros & Grant included in their classic printers' handbook Typographical Printing-Surfaces, a proposal for a letter similar to Ħ to represent "Th", thus abbreviating "the" to ħe. Why they did not propose reintroducing to the English language "þ", for which limited quantities of blocks may have already been available for use in Icelandic texts, or the yͤ form is unknown.
In Middle English, the (þe) was frequently abbreviated as a þ with a small e above it, similar to the abbreviation for that, which was a þ with a small t above it. During the latter Middle English and Early Modern English periods, the letter thorn (þ) in its common script, or cursive form, came to resemble a y shape. As a result, the use of a y with an e above it () as an abbreviation became common. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible in places such as Romans 15:29, or in the Mayflower Compact. Historically, the article was never pronounced with a y sound, even when so written.