Did you say 'thuh'?

You may choose to use it rarely but it is clearly with us to stay, that third littlest word in our language, t-h-e. You pronounce it somewhere between thuh and thee.

Dictionaries and manuals of style, of course, are less Midwestern than this writer, so their indications of pronunciation differences are subtler and accompanied by small decorated o's. But trust me, what they are trying to convey is a borderline thee in front of vowels, and an approach to thuh in front of consonants: Thuh cook was praised by thee author. Just don't exaggerate in your enunciation; go ahead on praise, of course, especially if you can get the cook to praise the author.

I've noticed this lately: Eschewed here and there, as in first lines of poetry, t-h-e is, at the same time, being taken up in high places. Suddenly, after decades, ''A Manual of Style,'' from the University of Chicago, has become ''THE Chicago Manual of Style,'' a new, beautiful 13th edition. And on the West Coast, that old money institution, Crocker Bank, is now THE Crocker Bank.

Makes a person wonder. Do we have time in this high-speed, get-on-with-it age to welcome such frills? This may require us to stand still for a minute on the pronunciation. Whereas I've always said, ''Thee Elements of Style,'' I now must think for a moment in order to say, ''Thuh Chicago Manual of Style.''

Any dictionary stands ready to confirm all this, and we don't need to study the foot-long (sometimes longer) column interpreting that tiny, three-letter article. It should be mentioned that some dictionaries limit themselves to a mere four inches of definition and illustration for t-h-e. It's a tricky mini-word, wielding power in many corners.

I take my hat off to those poets of today, poets who proceed without making use of the limiting the. But just try talking without thuh or thee: Thee apple is ripe Thuh words are trite Thuh dictionary is right Thee author is in flight. . . .

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