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The Phantom Tollbooth | Study Guide

Norton Juster

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The Phantom Tollbooth | Chapter 5 : Short Shrift | Summary



The spilled letters get all mixed up, and, as a result, sentences don't make sense. Someone shouts, "Done what you've looked" instead of "Look what you've done." The letters are cleaned up, and Officer Shrift, an extremely short and wide policeman, arrives. He questions everyone and tells Milo to turn off Tock's alarm, which is ringing. He lists their crimes as causing confusion, "upsetting the applecart, wreaking havoc, and mincing words." The officer says he is also the judge and gives Milo the shortest sentence he knows: "I am." He then takes Milo and Tock to the jail and tells them he will be back in six million years.

In jail, Milo and Tock meet a which, not a witch, named Faintly Macabre. She tells them that she once was in charge of "choosing which words were to be used for all occasions." She hung up signs all over that said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." She kept changing the sayings on the signs until finally she ended up with, "Silence is golden." This made talk stop, and words were no longer sold. For this, the king sent her to jail where she has remained for years. There was no replacement which, so people started using as many words as they wanted to. Milo pledges to help her when he is released from jail, but she tells him that only "the return of Rhyme and Reason" can help her.


When the jumbled words and letters create chaos in the market, his chapter again humorously emphasizes the importance of using the right words in the right order. This relates to the theme of using precise language to aid communication. Later in the chapter, when Milo is sent to jail, he vows to "learn all about" words and how to spell them, reinforcing the theme of the importance of an education.

Juster takes the phrase "short shrift" and gives it a literal meaning by making Officer Shrift short. The phrase typically refers to swift, unsympathetic treatment, which clearly characterizes Officer Shrift's response to the scene he finds at the market as well as in his immediate sentencing of Milo and Tock. This humorous use of language can also be seen in the "short sentence" given to Milo. The author turns a short jail sentence into a short sentence of two words. When Milo meets Faintly Macabre, she is described by the pronoun "which" and not the noun "witch." Her name is also a play on words, as "faintly macabre" means slightly gruesome.

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