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Mastering the Use of “TH” in English: Understanding the [θ] and [ð] Variants

Words with the “th” sound can be pronounced differently. These different spellings can confuse English learners, but with some practice and understanding, you can easily master the twists of “th” in English words.

Oluwadare Olusola DADA
Oluwadare Olusola DADA
Book lesson

Words with the “th” sound can be pronounced in two different ways:

  • As a voiceless dental fricative [θ], “th” (sounding like “f” without the “e” sound before);
  • As a voiced dental fricative [ð], “the” (sounding like “d” without the “i” after).

These different spellings can confuse English learners, but with some practice and understanding, you can easily master the twists of “th” in English words.

[θ] Sound of “th” combination

The [θ]: the most prominent form of the “th” sound as “f” written as [θ]. The voiceless “th” sound is made by placing the tip of the tongue between the teeth and releasing a stream of air without vibrating the vocal cords. A useful tip is that most times, the sound falls at the beginning of the first syllable or the end of the last syllable of a word. In these words, the “th” sound is pronounced with a sharp, unvoiced variant of the “f” in “think” [θɪŋk].

Let us practice with this tongue twister first with the tip and thereafter on your own without the tips.

Thin [θɪn] threads [θrɛdz] of thick [θɪk] thistle [θɪs(ə)l] weave [wiːv] through [θru] the thicket [θɪkɪt], with the thorough [ˈθʌrə] thought [θɔːt] of a thrifty [ˈθrɪfti] thief [θiːf].

Thin threads of thick thistle weave through the thicket with the thorough thought of a thrifty thief.

The three-year-old's [ˈθriː jɪər əldz] teeth [tiːθ] are the thinnest [ˈθɪnɪst] yet [jɛt], while the thick-skinned [ˈθɪk skɪnd] thespian [ˈθɛspiən] threatens [ˈθrɛt(ə)nz] to throttle [ˈθrɒt(ə)l] the thermometer [θəː ˈmɔːmɪtə].

The three-year-old’s teeth are the thinnest yet, while the thick-skinned thespian threatens to throttle the thermometer.

[ð] Sound of “th” combination

[ð] words that use the “th” (sounding like “d” without “i” after). The voiced “th” sound is made in the same way, but with the vocal cords vibrating. Words that use the “the” pronunciation with a softer, more refined sound. Some examples of words that use the “the” spelling include “the” [ðiː], “these” [ðiːz], “thee” [ðiː], “thy” [ðaɪ], “thine” [ðaɪn], “thence” [ðens], “thereof” [ðerʌv], and “thereby” [ðerbaɪ].

Let us practice with this tongue twister first with the tip and thereafter on your own without the tips.

The father [ˈfɑːðə] of the feather-footed [ˈfɛðə fʊtɪd] fiddler [ˈfɪd(ə)lə] fiddled [ˈfɪd(ə)ld] a fiddle [ˈfɪd(ə)l] with a feather [ˈfɛðə]. The fiddle-faddler's [ˈfɪd(ə)l ˈfæd(ə)ləz] fingers [ˈfɪŋgəz] fiddled [ˈfɪd(ə)ld] fast [fæst], while the fat [fæt] feather-footed [ˈfɛðə fʊtɪd] fiddler [ˈfɪd(ə)lə] fiddled [ˈfɪd(ə)ld] with the feather [ˈfɛðə] in his fedora [fɪˈdɔːrə] hat [hæt].

The father of the feather-footed fiddler fiddled a fiddle with a feather. The fiddle-faddler’s fingers fiddled fast while the fat feather-footed fiddler fiddled with the feather in his fedora hat.

Remember that Tongue twisters can be a fun and challenging way to practice pronunciation and enunciation skills.

[ð] is not [dʒ]

Often, this sound [ð] is mistakenly pronounced as [dʒ] in the form of [dz].

Remember that the [dz] sound differs from either of these “th” sounds. The [dz] sound is a voiced alveolar affricate consonant sound, represented by the letter combination “dz” or the single letter “d’ in certain contexts. It is made by bringing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth and then releasing a burst of air while vibrating the vocal cords. It is similar to the [dʒ] sound but is pronounced with more of a “d” sound at the beginning rather than a “j” sound.

If you’d like more practice with the different spellings and sounds of “th,” you can try saying other words out loud or finding more tongue twisters that use these sounds. It can also be helpful to ask the guidance of a tutor to help pronounce words with these sounds and try to imitate their pronunciation. A tutor will be able to learn more quickly as they can tell when you are doing well and can help manage where you struggle.

Like always, keep practicing, keep learning.

EnglishLanguage Learning

Oluwadare Olusola DADA

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