How to say "to"?
July 13, 2010 3:17 PM   Subscribe

US-EnglishFilter: is there a rule for how the preposition "to" is pronounced?

I don't perceive this difference on the other side of the pond (although I may just be an ignorant Yank) but here in America one can hear "to" pronounced two ways.
  • One more common I think, probably best practice -- "to" rhymes with two.
  • Alternative "to" sounds more like tuh, rhymes with 'duh' but for purpose of this discussion let's write it as "ta"
So is there any rule? Is it regional?
Examples of the first: This letter came to the wrong address, I'm going to sleep.
Examples of the second:He's listening ta the radio, I'm going ta bail early.

My ESL students want to know. I can't discern any rule yet from personal observation although I pronounce it both ways myself. Also they'd like to know about "the" (thuh or thee?) but that's another question.
posted by Rash to Writing & Language (21 answers total)
I don't believe there is a rule for to, it just depends on how fast you're talking.

As far as "the" goes, I learned in choir at some point to say "thee" before vowels, and "thuh" before consonants. I'm not actually sure that applies to spoken English though...
posted by brainmouse at 3:19 PM on July 13, 2010

it's two and thee, but accents and quickness and the sounds around the words will change the way it sounds.
posted by nadawi at 3:20 PM on July 13, 2010

I use both regularly - plus one that has a schwa!

"I'm going to the store" = "Tə" or "tah"
"Who's that going to?" = "Too."

I'm in the Northeastern/Mid-Atlantic United States.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:23 PM on July 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

He's listening ta the radio, I'm going ta bail early.

It's just informal slang brings out that kind of pronunciation. Check it out: I am listening to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I am going to depart the premises shortly.

See what happens?
posted by nathancaswell at 3:23 PM on July 13, 2010

This type of change is usually dependent on whether the syllable is stressed or not: weak and strong form. The "ta" form uses a schwa.

I'd say that the distinction is that when speaking carefully (e.g. in a classroom), "to" is used, but faster or more casual speech - or, to be honest, most speech in the real world - uses "ta".
posted by Paragon at 3:27 PM on July 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Re: to, tell them it's largely contextual. "Ta" is informal. "To" is more direct but also formal.

"Take it 'ta' the shop." Loose and informal.
"Where to, sir?" A sign of deference to a customer, but also asking for a specific place.

Re: "thuh" and "thee," it breaks down similarly, with the added bit that "thee" can be spoken to mean something unique or great.

"Let's go to thuh movie."
"It's not just any movie. It's THEE movie to see right now."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:27 PM on July 13, 2010

I am not a linguist.

As a very general (too general) rule, 'to' becomes 'tuh' when it's unstressed. It's the schwa sound in English (I had no idea of this until I took a linguistics class.)

US English speakers turn many vowels into schwas when they are unstressed. For example, the word 'professor' -- the first vowel is pronounced more like pruh.' Other examples in the Wikipedia page include the a in 'about' and the i in 'pencil.'

Wikipedia says the schwa is the most common vowel sound in English, which is especially interesting given that there's no letter for it, and spelling does not show it.

Here's another helpful Wikipedia article on unstressed vowels in English (which is what "tuh" includes).
posted by bluedaisy at 3:29 PM on July 13, 2010

Most people, whether they realize it or not, use both pronunciations of "to" and "the," whether they know it or not. It does have a lot to do with speed and stress.

Though both are used, the "ta" pronunciation is more commonly used in some areas of America than others. I hear it frequently in the upper Midwest; it used to confuse the hell out of me because I couldn't figure out why it was used differently. In fact, I just watched a Wisconsin couple on "House Hunters" use "ta" about fifty times in two minutes. gives a nice synopsis of pronunciation of the:

[stressed thee; unstressed before a consonant thuh; unstressed before a vowel thee]

Both ways are "correct" (in so much as dictionaries are prescriptive), but it's the "thuh" pronunciation one's likely to hear a tiny bit more often. Both in many ESL coursebooks, as well as US public school system textbooks, "the" is usualy the first example they give for that stalwart of English, the schwa sound.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:31 PM on July 13, 2010

PS I don't think this is generally regional, but there may be small regional variations. But, this is definitely not a region thing, but really just regular spoken English.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:31 PM on July 13, 2010

Then again, a lot of the time the word "to" gets entirely lost in the surrounding words, especially when it comes after common verbs.

"I'm goinda the store" "Are you gonna cook later or should we order out?" "She hadda leave early to pick up her kids".

I think that's the secret behind the Rosemary Clooney song "Come on a My House", too.
posted by Sara C. at 3:47 PM on July 13, 2010

It's just informal slang brings out that kind of pronunciation.

This is not actually true, as ten minutes of listening to NPR will demonstrate.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 4:24 PM on July 13, 2010

A lot of these answers seem sort of odd -- speaking fast isn't slangy. And I don't think it's so much "tuh" (or "thuh") as it is contractions: "I'm going t'the store. Meet me at th'shop." We're talking about contractions of 'to' and 'the' with the words that succeed them, not separate words.
posted by frobozz at 4:28 PM on July 13, 2010

Thuh/thee has the same distinction as a/an. Thuh/a before consonant sounds, and thee/an before vowel sounds. Note that it has to do with the next sound and not strictly the next letter. So you have "thuh ball" and "thee apple" but also, for example, "thuh university" (since it's pronounced "yooniversity" with a consonant y sound) and "thee FBI" (since it's pronounced "eff bee eye"). Obviously, speakers do not always hew exactly to this distinction in practice, but that's the general idea.
posted by cloudburst at 4:43 PM on July 13, 2010

Frobozz, I think part of the issue is that the pronunciation doesn't relate exclusively to "the" and "to." Those are just really common examples. But really this is a feature of standard spoken English, not slang or a contraction.

(It's like how you don't know what in infinitive verb is in English until you study Spanish. Sorta.)
posted by bluedaisy at 4:49 PM on July 13, 2010

As far as your students are concerned, pronouncing it "two" is never wrong, and will rarely, if ever, raise eyebrows. As everyone above has said, "ta" is a variant form, and using it is fine, but if your students are concerned with speaking "correctly", I think "two" is the way to go.
posted by epj at 5:34 PM on July 13, 2010

But really this is a feature of standard spoken English, not slang or a contraction.

Yes. It is a feature of every spoken language that not every word will be enunciated clearly in conversational speech. Sometimes this evolves into separate words and is given its own spellings in the written language. Other times it is not, unless you're a 16th century poet.
posted by frobozz at 5:49 PM on July 13, 2010

Yes of course (smacking forehead) it's the unstressed schwa! And bluedaisy, there is a character for it, the upside-down-e: ə. Maybe not so well-known unless you're really familiar with dictionaries. Thanks, all, for making these issues clear!
posted by Rash at 7:06 PM on July 13, 2010

Yup, but I meant a character in regular written English. Sorry to be unclear.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:08 PM on July 13, 2010

In my rural Pacific Northwest grade school we were taught never to pronounce to as "tuh" because it was considered low class. Now when I hear it, by certain newscasters, it really annoys me. And we weren't allowed to drop gerunds. I think the change has come because Oprah makes a bazillion dollars and she says "y'all".
posted by cda at 7:36 AM on July 14, 2010

I don't think there's been a chance (within the last century or so, anyway) - I think your grade school presents a classic case of hypercorrecting.
posted by Sara C. at 9:02 AM on July 14, 2010

"been a chance" = "been a change", ugh!
posted by Sara C. at 9:03 AM on July 14, 2010

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