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The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Chapter 4 : Confusion in the Market Place | Summary



People at the Word Market are selling lots of words, including "ifs, ands, and buts" and "ripe where and when." A man tries to sell Milo "a nice bagful of pronouns." Milo is excited by all of the words, admitting to Tock that he wanted to "learn how to use them." Neither Milo nor Tock have any money to buy the words. They see a wagon selling all the letters in the alphabet for people who want to make up their own words. They taste a letter "A" and discover it is very sweet, unlike a letter "Z," which is very dry. When Milo says he has trouble making words, a giant Spelling Bee appears to help him out. The bee explains he started out as an ordinary bee before realizing the importance of an education.

The Humbug appears, shouting "Balderdash!" The Spelling Bee warns Milo not to believe him as he is a fraud. The Humbug takes the opposite approach to the Spelling Bee, explaining that spelling is a waste of time because "as soon as you learn to spell one word," another new word comes along and there is no way to catch up.

The Spelling Bee knocks the Humbug's hat off, and the Humbug's cane hits the bee in the foot. The two fight and knock over stalls in the market place, and letters fly everywhere.


In this chapter, the author again plays with common sayings. A popular expression like "no ifs, and, or buts" is turned into something literal as a merchant in the Market Place sells his "freshly-picked ifs, ands, and buts." Often, sophisticated words are called "ten-dollar words" or even "million-dollar words," implying that ordinary, common words are not worth as much. In the word market, difficult words like "quagmire" and "flabbergast" are more expensive than simpler words. This is cleverly spun into the idea that Milo doesn't have enough money to buy fancy words.

The Spelling Bee helps spell out one of the main themes of the book: the importance of education. The bee explains that it wouldn't have amounted "to anything without an education." This is one of the lessons Milo will learn over the course of the book. Milo is beginning to realize that learning something new is a good thing, in contrast to his disdain for learning in the beginning of the book.

The word "humbug" means "a willfully false, deceptive, or insincere person." The Humbug is both a bug in men's clothing and a deceptive character. He tries to tell Milo that proper spelling is a waste of time. He also shouts the word "Bah" which is a parody of the character of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, who referred to holiday cheer as "Bah, humbug."

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