Study Guide

The Phantom Tollbooth Chapter 5

By Norton Juster

Chapter 5

Short Shrift

  • After the fight, all the words are out of order. This means that everybody talks very strangely for a while.
  • The Spelling Bee bails.
  • In comes Dictionopolis' single police officer, Officer Shrift. He's short, which makes him "short shrift." (Get it? To give the "short shrift" to something means to blow it off or pretty much ignore it.)
  • The policeman analyzes everything, and as he's assessing the situation, the Humbug steps forward and accidentally blames it all on Milo. What the heck?!
  • Officer Shrift accuses Milo of several things, none of which are actually his fault. So uncool.
  • Milo tries to think on his feet, saying that as a policeman, Officer Shrift can't judge him or determine his punishment (that would be the job of a judge or a jury, right?). But Officer Shrift explains that he's got the power to do both those things.
  • The officer gives Milo a sentence ("I am" [5.23] – get it? It's a sentence) and also says he'll have to go to jail for 6,000,000 years. Wow.
  • Tock is caught up in everything and he'll have to go to jail, too. Officer Shrift drops them off at the slammer and tells them that they'll be locked up with a witch. Then he heads out.
  • Tock and Milo are understandably upset. Milo makes a vow to be better at English.
  • Finally, the witch, who's in the cell with them, introduces herself.
  • She's an elderly woman who doesn't appear all that scary: her name is Faintly Macabre. She explains she's a "Which," not the ordinary Halloween-style witch (spelled w-i-t-c-h) we were probably expecting.
  • She used to have an important job in Dictionopolis helping people decide which words were appropriate when.
  • Unfortunately, she got too full of herself and hoarded the words. She encouraged other people not to use them at all. Since Dictionopolis makes money from selling words, she nearly destroyed the country's economy.
  • Because of this, the king, who's one of her relatives, put her in jail for life, and let other people start deciding which words they wanted to use whenever they wanted. Freedom of speech!
  • She gives Milo and Tock each a snack – punctuation marks, which taste like candy.
  • Milo is inspired to free the Which, but she says that there's only one specific thing that will take care of that. Rhyme and Reason have to come back to Dictionopolis.
  • When Milo asks why, Faintly Macabre says it's a whole "story" (5.75). Read on, because she'll give them the lowdown in the next chapter.