Say what you mean
Learning about syntax
Tea Party
THIS illustration of the Mad Tea Party by Charles Robinson appeared in a 1907 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It shows, from left, the Hatter, Dormouse (asleep with his head on the table), March Hare and Alice.
"Say what you mean. Mean what you say." You may have heard this mantra often enough. But, did you know that this is a quote from a famous storybook written over a hundred and fifty years ago? It was the March Hare that said these words at the Mad Tea Party in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

In the seventh chapter of the novel, Alice sees the March Hare, Hatter and Dormouse seated at a table under a tree. The table is set for tea. Alice joins them for what she thinks is going to be pleasant chat.

However, by the end of the conversation, Alice is totally upset. Even though the March Hare says, "Say what you mean. Mean what you say," he does not practise what he preaches. He, as well as Hatter and Dormouse, use English in ways that make no sense.

The result is a funny piece of writing - but, it is not much fun for poor Alice. After leaving in a huff, she says to herself, "It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!" Read aloud the following extracts from the book and you will see why.

The Mad Tea Party
March Hare & Hatter: No room! No room!

Alice (sitting down at the table): There's PLENTY of room!

March Hare: Have some wine.

Alice: I don't see any wine.

March Hare: There isn't any.

Alice (angrily): Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it.

March Hare: It wasn't very civil of you to sit down without being invited.

Alice: I didn't know it was YOUR table. It's laid for a great many more than three.

Hatter: Your hair wants cutting.

Alice: You should learn not to make personal remarks. It's very rude.

The Riddle
Hatter: Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

Alice (aloud): I believe I can guess that.

March Hare: Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?

Alice: Exactly so.

March Hare: Then you should say what you mean.

Alice (hastily): I do. At least…at least I mean what I say. That's the same thing, you know.

Hatter: Not the same thing a bit! You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see"!

March Hare: You might just as well say that "I like what I get" is the same thing as "I get what I like"!

Dormouse: You might just as well say that "I breathe when I sleep" is the same thing as "I sleep when I breathe"!

Hatter (to Dormouse): It IS the same thing with you.

They sit silent for a minute, while Alice thinks over all she can remember about ravens and writing-desks, which isn't much.

Hatter (to Alice): Have you guessed the riddle yet?

Alice: No, I give it up. What's the answer?

Hatter: I haven't the slightest idea.

March Hare: Nor I.

Alice (wearily): I think you might do something better with the time than waste it in asking riddles that have no answers.

More tea?
March Hare (to Alice): Take some more tea.

Alice: I've had nothing yet, so I can't take more.

Hatter: You mean you can't take LESS. It's very easy to take MORE than nothing.

Alice: Nobody asked YOUR opinion.

Hatter (triumphantly): Who’s making personal remarks now?

Why is Alice so upset by the words spoken by Hatter, Dormouse and the March Hare? If you focus on the grammar alone, then most of these sentences are in good English. Yet, it is easy to see that the conversation is full of sheer nonsense. The problem here is syntax. Syntax is the way in which words and phrases are strung together to make sense. And, syntax is a big part of speaking good English.

The March Hare, Hatter and Dormouse may know their grammar. But, to communicate better, they should pay more attention to syntax. Syntax matters in our conversations, too. You can find out more about it in this new What's Up series.

In the Mad Tea Party conversation above, spot the words and phrases that show poor syntax. Use a different colour pencil to underline each example. In the margins, tag your underlined parts with comments. You may, for instance, write "Rude", "Unkind", "No such word", "Jargon", "Silly", "Confusing" and so on. Then, replace the underlined words and phrases with ones that would turn the Mad Tea Party conversation into a happier one for Alice.

The series is brought to you by What's Up in partnership with the Speak Good English Movement of Singapore.