Category Archives: clear thinking

“When one eats fast food…”

I’m going to consider this Horror the third in the Unnecessary Sentences sequence, although it could arguably stand alone.

Here it is in all its glory:

“When one eats fast food, the oil, fat, sugar, salt, and other contents of the food go directly into the body.”

Where else it might go first I cannot imagine, unless “eating” can include “spilling on tie,” “playing with on dish,” and “putting in the refrigerator for later,” all of which activities do involve a detour between bag and mouth. But once it’s in the mouth, food can pretty much be said to have gone directly into the body (assuming no physical abnormality of the mouth).

I THINK my student meant that all those “contents” are broken down into substances that will enter and affect the various systems and components of the body—structurally kind of like the lament sometimes heard at birthday parties, “That cupcake will go directly to my hips,” an hyperbolic utterance bemoaning the speaker’s propensity for putting on fat. As in that example, so for my student: it’s enough to say the “contents” of food go directly into the body; the intermediate steps can be assumed. But if that’s what she means, how is fast food different from other foods?

She might mean that we should worry because fast food contains excessive amounts of things that are bad in excess—oil, fat, sugar, salt—and we are putting those things into our bodies. That would be a likely idea in an essay about the unhealthy effects of a McDonald’s diet, and that’s what this essay was. But that isn’t what she has offered the reader. Maybe she thought the worry part was obvious.

And of course it is. Of course I knew what she meant. How to prevent invasion by these substances? When you eat fast food, this happens—so don’t eat fast food. And that was her essay’s message, so maybe the sentence is doing its job, sort of, after all.

But I’m still sitting here thinking about ways in which food might go into the mouth and then take some side excursion before entering the body. And I don’t really want to think about it!

Well, I wish I hadn't decided to put a picture in here. Now I'm hungry. But if I eat this food, will it go directly into my body? Image from

Well, I wish I hadn’t decided to put a picture in here. Now I’m hungry. But if I eat this food, will it go directly into my body? Image from

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ …

My student was writing about a poem by Catullus, and he’s right: that’s how it started out. It’s quite similar to a poignant poem fragment by Sappho. Both poets are writing about being of two minds, being torn by two contrary emotions. No matter how familiar that situation, it never ceases to produce agony, at least in the world I inhabit (the same one Sappho and Catullus used to inhabit, I believe).

My student didn’t quite get that, though. Here’s what he had to say:

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ This can be interpreted as the speaker is indifferent about his feelings.”

Usually I can agree with students when they protest a correction or query with an insistent “But you knew what I meant.” But here, do I? For that matter, does he?

Every once in a while a student offers a flat-out piece of self-contradiction that I know can’t be intentional. But the ensuing paragraph rarely resolves the problem; more often, the writer seems to assume that truth has been uttered, insight offered, and it’s time to move on. The reader has to ask, though, how the writer could simply move on—indeed, whether the writer has actually read the sentence at all.

Is it possible that this student doesn’t actually know the meaning of “indifferent”? Might he think it means “confused” or “puzzled by the difference in” or even “different”?

It’s hard to imagine a college student unfamiliar with “indifferent.” (I never thought anyone would have trouble understanding the word “disinterested,” either—would think it meant the same thing as “uninterested”—but evidently a lot of people are in that particular boat, and if English continues to bend to accommodate usage pretty soon I may be the one who’s confused.) The more I think about a possible confusion between “indifferent” and “different,” the more attractive it becomes as an explanation, because I do have students who seem to disregard prefixes such as “in-,” which are unstressed and sort of sound as if they might just be little gulps preceding the actual word.

Probably I shouldn’t puzzle over this too much. After all, he did say that the line could be interpreted as, not that it actually meant that. He isn’t actually “owning” the idea; he’s just throwing it out there. I wrote “No, it couldn’t” in the margin; he may have read my comment and simply said to himself “Oh, huh. Whatever.”

Still, because I cling to the idea that my students really do try, I would welcome any other explanations for his bizarre assertion. Was he confused about the meaning of “indifferent”? Did he fall asleep at the end of the first sentence or in some other way completely forget it as he plunged into the second? Or is something else entirely going on?

There’s always the possibility, albeit remote, that he’s right. Perhaps those of us who think we are wrestling with fiercely contrary feelings are actually completely indifferent, and just don’t know it. Perhaps we should just get over our silly romantic stance, put our feet up, and change the channel.

“This short-term pleasure will only last so long.”

I am ashamed of myself for neglecting my blog for virtually the entire month of December. I have been grading and grading and grading as those student essays, projects, major papers, portfolios, and finals juggernaut in.

The bright side is More Grist for the Mill.

My student was writing about the role of pleasure in the formation of unhealthy eating habits. She meant to say that the pleasure of appetite gratification is temporary, while the bad effects accrue over time and produce lasting suffering. Very true. But instead of saying “That Big Mac with cheese is only a short-term pleasure,” she began with “This short-term pleasure …” and then sought a verb that would emphasize the point. The point, of course, was that the pleasure was only short-term, and so unless she was going contrast it with long-term something-or-other the sentence really had nowhere to go, other than to double back on itself. Rather than start the sentence over, or express the other half of the thought, back she doubled.

And so she didn’t really write what she meant, or at least she didn’t manage to write all of what she meant.

What she DID write was a poignant, if self-defining, reminder of the ephemeral nature of pleasure (in this life of pain and toil). So young and yet so wise, or so disillusioned….

On the other hand, we might view her statement as less a cri de coeur than a carpe diem, and in that sense it’s not a bad reminder for the approaching family gatherings; parties; exchanges of gifts; lightings of candles and fireworks; quaffings of nogs, punches, and champagnes; samplings of cookies and candies; singings of auld-lang-synes: this short-term pleasure will last only so long [note that I myself prefer to place the modifier as close as possible to the word modified], so enter into the joy of the season whole-heartedly, appreciate the pleasures to the full. There’s a lot of winter yet to come, and the warm, bright memories will flicker still even into the darks and damps of January and February.

Especially if you’ve turned in your grades.

“Beowulf, like Everyman, accepted death towards the end of his life.”

That’s a pretty good time to accept it.

Actually, both of them fully accept death AT life’s end, not TOWARDS it. Furthermore, Beowulf makes a beginning at acceptance quite early in life, whereas Everyman waits until the last minute.

We see Beowulf as heroic partly because he accepts even in youth the very real possibility that he will die in one of his exploits. Wrestling with the ferocious and powerful Grendel in the Danes’ mead hall is fraught with danger; but even though Beowulf acknowledges this, he insists on meeting Grendel in barehanded single combat; although a dozen hand-picked Geats stand ready to assist him, he sees the battle as HIS fight. Either he will prevail, thus saving the lives of countless Danes and relieving King Hrothgar of the burden of guilt AND at the same time enhancing his own reputation for strength and courage; or he will fail, and failure means death of a particularly gruesome kind. Similarly, when he takes a sword and pursues Grendel’s mother into her underwater cave to avenge her (revenge-) killing of Hrothgar’s best friend, he tells his Geats and the Dane warriors assembled at the brink of the mere that he goes into this alone, and their only task is to watch and, if necessary, report his death. Fifty years later, when he goes to fight the dragon who has been despoiling his kingdom after a drunken lout disturbed the treasure-hoard the dragon existed to guard, he acknowledges that he will probably die in the attempt but insists that he must fight alone. Young Wiglaf enters the fight after the dragon has wounded Beowulf, but although he manages to wound the dragon he leaves the last knife-thrust for Beowulf. Both hero and dragon die as a result of this battle; but before Beowulf dies he distributes some of the treasure from the hoard among his people and gives them some good advice (through Wiglaf)—in effect, he makes his will. His people mourn him greatly, a “good king” who has ruled wisely and fairly. Beowulf, though, accepts death with the same grace with which he has accepted success before: it is in his nature to accept death.

This is nothing like the way Everyman “accepts” death, especially towards (as distinct from at) the end of his life. When God sends Death to Everyman to set him on the road to his final accounting at the grave, Everyman tries to talk Death out of it, asking him to come back later, give him just a little more time…. Death being adamant, Everyman then bemoans the terrible state of his accounting book and tries to persuade a series of friends and relatives to go with him to buck him up on the journey. They all refuse (one pleads a sore toe!); he sets out, but continues to ask such friends as Beauty and Strength to come along. He manages to restore Good Deeds to health after much too much neglect, and he embraces the promise of salvation and confesses his sins; he can’t actually be accurately said to “accept” death until the very end, though—his attitude is closer to resignation than acceptance.

So my student is wrong two ways: both on the timing of the acceptance of death, and on the similarity of this acceptance. She should have known better than to try to equate a HERO with an EVERYMAN, or “typical person.”

What an interesting discussion could have developed from a comparison between the two characters. She might have speculated on the relative philosophical stances of a hero and an everyday kind of guy, or on the role of an afterlife on the way a Christian should live life as handled by a (probably) Christian monk writing about a pre-Christian hero, and another (probably) monk several centuries later writing about a not-very-diligent Christian. She could have discussed the value of remembering the inevitability of death (memento mori) even when life is at its richest, comparing Beowulf’s integrity even in his youthful adventures to Everyman’s moral and religious laxity until the last minute (“O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind”). What conclusions she might have reached I don’t know, since I admit I’ve only begun to think of these possibilities as a result of writing today’s post on today’s horror. But they seem to be worth exploring nevertheless.

Making a hasty generalization about a vaguely defined moment is not the way to find the road to revelation: I do know that.

Sometimes I look back on my college career and lament the opportunities I missed: courses I might have taken, papers I might have given more thought to, heights I might have reached…. I know we all have such regrets. It breaks my heart that my students seem to amass regrettable moments so quickly, and at such a trivial level, where they could instead have let themselves be tempted into taking more glorious risks.

Well, anyway, she sighed.

Let us accept the inevitable things while we can still throw joy at them.

“She talked to her son about sex and the consequences it carried, such as…”

This is from an essay about a 14-year-old pregnant bride and her of-age but possibly socially challenged groom. They managed to marry legally by crossing state lines, but upon arriving home the groom was arrested for statutory rape, with the pregnancy as evidence.

You can follow the two links above if you want the rest of the story. Significant to today’s Horror is that before their marriage the happy couple were coupling in the young man’s parental cellar; his mother had tried to discourage such behavior by way of warnings, but obviously the warnings had no effect.

Knowing the context of my student’s statement, you will know what he meant by

“She talked to her son about sex and the consequences it carried, such as pregnancy and a prison sentence.”

You will also agree that my student didn’t quite say what he meant.

Pregnancy is sometimes a consequence of sex, or more precisely sexual intercourse, but it is not a consequence sex “carries” automatically. And, fortunately for billions of humans past and present, a prison sentence is not a consequence of the sexual act. Even in countries where many aspects of human behavior have been criminalized, sex per se has so far escaped the penal system. Going to prison is not, for example, the journey planned for the morning after the wedding night. As far as I know, prison sentences are imposed for behavior (rape? oath-breaking?) or circumstances (gender issues? species choice?) on which the sex act is contingent, but not for the act itself. Such criminalizing reflects social and moral judgments (enlightened or not), not biological events in and of themselves.

We give the word “sex” a whole range of meanings, from “gender identity” all the way to a sequence of dirty doings and their aftermath. Because of this, writers have to be careful to specify what they actually have in mind. My writer has not done that. In fact, he means “sexual intercourse” (having gone to college in Pennsylvania and admired souvenir hats brought back from the town of Intercourse by frat boys, I know the noun needs the adjective!) at the beginning of the sentence; in the middle he means “some instances of sexual intercourse,” and by the end he means only sexual intercourse between an adult male and a minor girl, or the two lovers in question. Because he doesn’t track the shifting definition, he gives us the amazing picture of prisons stuffed to the gills with a huge percentage of the earth’s adult population—who languish, arms stretched longingly through the bars, perhaps lamenting their one fine fling of passion, while smug puritanical critics and homeless children walk the loveless streets.…

Well, be careful out there.


“The question that is always wondered in everyone’s mind is…”

So the verb here is “to be wondered.” Do we have yet another inanimate agent? Not sure, because the question is wondered; that is, it is wondered by something, and that thing is the agent. The agent is certainly unclear, though: the wondering takes place in everyone’s mind, so the mind itself can’t be doing the wondering. Could the question be presenting itself to be wondered…by whatever else happens to be in the mind?

I suppose if my student had included a preposition—”the question that is always wondered about“—the phrase wouldn’t seem quite so bizarre, although the matter of agent would still be up for grabs, or for gropes in the dim recesses of the mind. Wondered about by whom or what?

Perhaps one of my readers more thoroughly informed in grammatical terminology can name this error. I throw up my hands, then put them down again and grab a pen so I can write “awkward and unclear” in the margin and move on.

And so, on to the question itself:

“The question that is always wondered in everyone’s mind is ‘Whose fault is obesity?'”

I had assigned five essays on the “American obesity epidemic” for the week’s reading. Apparently my student generalized from those examples and assumed that everyone was thinking about the issue, all the time. Now, as a perennially-dieting person from the age of eleven on, I probably think about obesity more than a lot of other people do—and I don’t think about it all that much, at least compared to the other things I think about. I especially don’t spend a lot of time wondering whose fault it is. Two or three of the assigned readings did place blame: one accused the weak-willed or perverse individual; one accused pleasure-pushing fast-food joints; a third accused a hurried and thoughtless society that offered few convenient alternatives to junk food. It’s tempting here to echo a wonderful song by Jo Carol Pierce (Bad Girls Upset with the Truth) and add “I blame GOD!” But none of the readings did that…

So my student wasn’t really far off the mark, and an effort at more precise diction would have produced a more effective opening to a (probably accurate-enough) essay of his own. The quarrel I have with him is that he spawned that horribly awkward and unclear noun clause and then went blithely on with his verb of being and ill-defined predicate-nominative question. And that’s the sentence he used to launch an essay that staggered its way through a similarly awkward and ill-defined discussion.

I really, really believe that taking more time on that first sentence would have given him some control as he went forward.

Did he read what he had written? In the small draft-reading circles, did any of his partners object to, or ask about, this sentence? Or, horrible to contemplate, was this phrasing the result of polishing something even rougher as he finalized his paper to turn in?

All these speculations are too depressing as the second week of the semester chugs along and my brand-new first-years toil over Essay Number One, Draft One.

Many years ago, a professor on whom I had a blinding, suffocating crush came into class the day after, we later learned, his wife had left him and commented à propos of nothing that “Hope was the last thing released from Pandora’s Box…the last evil, and the worst.” I tell myself this characterization was as wrong as it was unorthodox, as I gaze hopefully at my students.

“This story just goes to show you that human nature is…”

Finish the sentence. Bet you get it wrong.

Of course stories (and poems, and plays) generally offer insights into human nature. That’s a big reason why we read: for the insights. Human beings are complicated creatures, even the simplest of us, and therefore infinitely fascinating. Even if you write over and over again about the exact same person, new insights will continue to emerge. Change the point of view, the immediate circumstance, the moment in time, the conflict, the other characters, and that person will show other sides, other depths, other selves.

So my student could have chosen almost any adjective and had a sentence with potential.

Human nature is …


guilty in every human predicament.




fundamentally the same all over the world.



But he didn’t go there.

Here’s his sentence:

“This story just goes to show you that human nature is inevitable.”

Given that utterance, the reader has to look at the rest of the wording while she absorbs the shock. “Just goes to show you”—what kind of phrase is that? Don’t we use it most commonly in situations of unhappy lessons? —”The fact that the paperboy threw the newspaper into that puddle on purpose just goes to show you that adolescent boys have a nasty streak,” for instance. “When I told my mother I saw the beggar getting into a limousine, she just said ‘That just goes to show you, you can’t believe every tale of woe you hear.'” And so on.

So what’s it doing in a sentence about a story? Had the reader previously believed that human nature was evitable, and the story proved her wrong? We can live deluded lives, but a story can open our eyes to the truth?

In a paper that didn’t tell me human nature is inevitable, I probably would have ignored the “goes to show you.” It’s just a slangy phrase; he didn’t mean anything by it. He just meant “shows.” But once the “inevitable” got in there, I was forced to spend more time trying to figure out what he was talking about, and that gave me a reason to go back and reread (don’t we go back to the beginning of a sentence if we get to the end and feel we can’t have understood it?). Back I went, and tripped over “goes to show you.”

But let’s not dwell on that, but forge on.

What could he have meant? Trying words that have the same beginning and perhaps ending as the mystery word is often a way to make an educated guess. So, inscrutable? incomprehensible? indomitable? insatiable? ineffableineradicable? inimical to serious thought?


Maybe he just wanted to say you can’t change human nature. I failed to copy out the next few sentences, so I don’t know where he took his observation, but I’d hazard a guess that that was what he meant. It certainly makes a bit more sense than “you can’t avoid human nature,” or even “you can’t avoid having human nature,” which the sentence seems actually to be saying.

Hmm. I wish he’d chosen one of the other possibilities—even “inedible.” Why not take a chance and get a little fun out of life?

P.S. Thanks to all my readers and followers! As of last night, my fun, this blog, now has more than 500 followers, not to mention the 350 others who just have it inflicted upon them via Facebook. Bring on the book offers!

“All he did was a little respiration work.”

This statement comes from one of many student essays on the case of a self-taught restorer of stained-glass windows who extracted a sagging Tiffany window from a crumbling mausoleum, refurbished it, and sold it to an antiques dealer (and fence) who was already under surveillance for trafficking in stolen art. For the story, you can seek out the several entries I’ve already done for sentences dealing with the case. Here’s one to get you started.

My student here is defending the window thief, one of the options for the assigned essay. She just has a strange idea of what he actually did.

It’s only a typo. Or a misspelling. Or a bad word choice…

by way of which she turned our lad from a crooked craftsman into a fitness trainer, health-care worker, or yogi.

She could have said “repair work.” She could have made a somewhat ambiguous choice and said “reparation work”—that would have gotten by. The assignment sheet, which includes a case summary, uses the word “restoration,” which, to anyone even remotely familiar with antiques and art, is the most accurate choice of the three: it describes his intention, his process, and his product.

He was a lover of Tiffany’s works, a self-taught student of the windows especially, and also a student of stained glass construction and repair (one adult-education class and then more self-education). In his job of cemetery caretaker, he noticed the forgotten mausoleum and its sagging window. Time is not kind to stained-glass windows: as the came (the lead that holds the pieces of glass in place) expands and contracts during years of summers and winters, it becomes stretched and sometimes brittle, and the glass thereby becomes looser in its setting. Given enough time, the window can release the glass fragments like a hand opening and scattering so many coins, and what was once a pictorial or decorative work of art or high craft is transformed into a meaningless pile of shards.

The window in question was nine feet tall and proportionately heavy. He painstakingly removed it, took it home, and spent six years restoring it. Where pieces of glass had been lost or cracked, he sought out and purchased appropriate replacements. He replaced the came. When a client of his purchaser’s asked if a rising sun could be inserted into the scene (said client was a “Japanese collector,” which may explain his whim), our craftsman refused to violate Tiffany’s design. The finished window fetched him $60,000 from the fence; the Japanese client in turn paid $240,000 for it. And the craftsman was arrested for (and convicted of) trafficking in stolen art, grand larceny, and perhaps vandalism.

His defenders among my students said he was a hero, saving a work of art from certain ruin and enabling it to be seen again (the purchaser reportedly gave or sold the window to a Japanese museum). Or he was a good man, heart-broken to see something beautiful decay. Or he was an art-lover whose passion had overcome his reason. Several students pointed out that the window was, in effect, worthless before he restored it, and so the charge of grand larceny seemed inappropriate.

This particular student wanted to know what the man had done that was all that bad. After all, he hadn’t harmed anyone or anything. All he did was…yes, alas, a little “respiration work.”

We are left with the picture of a man crouched over a window, or kneeling before it, breathing on it. The breath of life, perhaps? Was he sighing, panting, gasping, holding his breath, blowing dust away? All of these would qualify as respiration work, I imagine. Hard to imagine how any of those activities would do much for a deteriorating stained-glass window, though. Could he have been some kind of “window whisperer”?

If she didn’t know the word “restoration,” and didn’t notice it used repeatedly on the assignment sheet and therefore feel compelled to look it up, surely she did already know the word “respiration.” Where was the internal editor that should have asked “BREATHING??? What does that have to do with it????” and driven her at least to reread the sheet? I am sure she did not mean “breathing,” in any of its forms. Even if he was INspired by Tiffany, the fact that he was REspiring at the time is totally beside any rational point.

The saddest part of the whole thing is that we did a lot of small-group work with the drafts of this essay. Unless “respiration” was a last-minute addition during the polishing of the final draft, more eyes than hers gazed upon it in its little sentence and noticed nothing amiss.

Or else perhaps someone in the peer process suggested the word? If that was the case, though, where (again) was my student’s internal editor to ask “Are you out of your mind?”

As for me, when I read the paper I laughed, shook my head, wrote “wrong word” in the margin, took a deep breath…and moved on.

“Organization is key to achievement…”

Yet another inanimate-object-as-agent example, and I promise I will try to move on to something else (at least for the time being).


“Organization is key to achievement and it pertains to almost everything trying to be accomplished.”

Presumably, the notion that organization is key to achievement is what pertains to almost everything.

So we will turn our attention to the participle “trying.” What does it modify? “Everything”—or rather, “everything trying to be accomplished.” Where, oh where in this sentence is there any suggestion that accomplishment takes some kind of worker, some person exerting effort, some individual or group with an idea or dream? The things themselves, the ideas and dreams, are responsible for getting themselves accomplished here. And if those things want to have a chance of succeeding in their efforts, they must have organization, the key to achievement. Lacking hands, how will they ply this key? That’s anybody’s guess.

Is it that students really, really want to move ever forward in their sentences, never going back to try alternatives for the sake of clarity, accuracy, or style? Or, in the case of this particular sentence, do we have an example of a student who should have stopped earlier but felt the need for a grander ending? Put a period after “everything” and you have a perfectly viable sentence. WHY GO ON? I don’t know, but I do know this isn’t the only student who has erred in this way.

Whatever her reason, she left me with a vision of a roomful of things, looking for the organization key, strenuously aspiring to achieve…something, somehow.

“Blessed are the gentile…”

For today, the Revised Nonstandard Version of several of the Beatitudes. Before sharing this enlightenment, I’ll remind everyone that The Beatitudes is the traditional name for part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Christian Bible, Matthew 5 – 7; you can read the lovely King James Version on Bartleby if you don’t have a Bible handy), a litany of “blessed are”s describing the kind of person Jesus (and thereby God) approves and would like to encourage: collectively, a kind, patient, tolerant, selfless, and spiritually hopeful person whose deprivations on earth will be rewarded by a grateful Father in Heaven (and possibly also by the endorsement of similar individuals on earth).

The Beatitudes was one of the Bible excerpts in my World Lit I anthology, and I thought we had a nice discussion of the style, the message, and the ways in which the message compared with the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an, and several other Eastern texts. Later in the semester one of my students was moved to incorporate the Beatitudes in a paper, and here are the ones he thought were particularly noteworthy:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, because there is a kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are the gentile, because they shall inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are they who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they shall be feed.”

To be fair: The Norton Anthology didn’t use the King James Version. Also to be fair: my student is not quoting the version the Norton did use, either.

Now, let us take a look at these words of direction and comfort.

The poor in spirit are blessed by the fact that there is a kingdom of heaven. As far as my student is concerned, this seems to be the most Jesus is willing to promise; no guarantees or even suggestions that the poor in spirit will actually go to the kingdom of heaven, let alone inherit it.

There’s no ambiguity or confusion about the next point: the gentile will inherit the earth. King James says the “meek” shall inherit the earth, but the translation the students read said the “gentle” would inherit the earth. Why do students have so much trouble with words that begin “gent” and have an “l” somewhere later? We have all, I’m sure, seen bizarre statements about the “genitals” by writers who were probably writing about “gentiles”…and vice versa.  And here my student must have thought he was talking about people who were meek, gentle. But he didn’t write that. I’d hate to think AutoCorrect has become so cynical, so “now,” as to assume that nobody ever means to write “gentle” anymore; but if I can’t blame AutoCorrect I’m going to have to blame my student. I certainly hope he didn’t actually mean “blessed are the gentile” here, because if so he was seriously disenfranchising the Jewish people, who were not only Jesus’ people and his principal audience but also the people who had been promised back there in the Hebrew Bible that they had been chosen by God to be his people. Now suddenly Jesus is promising the whole earth to the gentiles?  Actually, the word “gentile” per se doesn’t occur in the Jewish or Christian bible, or in the Qur’an; it is a word from the Latin originally meaning “people” or “ethnic group” and applied in Latin translations of the Bible to mean “non-Jew” (people who don’t get a very good rap there, especially in the Old Testament). English translations, generally from the Latin texts, continue this usage, and more largely in English translations of other cultural texts it also stood in for “infidels,” or  “non-believers (in ______ [your faith here]).” When the Qur’an says “gentiles,” it means non-Muslims. And this continues even in texts originally English: To a Mormon, it can mean “non-Mormons.” Anyway, whoever these people are, like a doting lover Jesus is giving them the earth. The chosen-people-of-your-choice must be pretty frustrated.

Finally, those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness are not going to get righteousness; they’re going to be turned into some kind of Soylent Green for those who, presumably, are less urgent about their desires. (My student might have meant “paid a stipend,” as in “feed” as the past form of “to fee,” or to pay. But I really don’t think he did mean that. How often do you hear college students use “fee” as a verb?) No, Jesus must have been giving the needy some straight talk: The rich get richer, and the full get fuller by munching their feed, those hungry-thirsty people. Literally serves them right, get me?

The Sermon ton the Mount. Not everybody looks happy...must be some non-Gentiles in the audience? This image, a nineteenth-century painting by Carl Bloch, can be found on a zillion Internet sites, one of which is

The Sermon on the Mount. Not everybody looks happy…must be some non-Gentiles in the audience? This image, a nineteenth-century painting by Carl Bloch, can be found on a zillion Internet sites, one of which is