May 24

I Pledge Allegiance to the Flow

When did you first know that you were a writer? I can trace it back to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. Whenever we got to the line “one Nation under God” I thought it sounded awkward. Now mind you, I had no knowledge of the political forces and controversies surrounding the words “under God” in the Pledge. My reaction stemmed purely from the writer’s sense of something being wrong with the flow.

When a piece has good flow the words and sentences have a smooth, unbroken rhythm. Think of reading a passage and following the words with your finger as you read. If at any point your finger pauses too long or stops completely, you have a potential problem with the flow. It means your brain is either working harder to process the written words, or it has come completely out of the story.

In fiction, good flow requires such things as: no logic problems in the plot; no out of character behaviors that are incongruent with the plot; and no inconsistencies like the color of a car being red on one page and blue five pages later. Any of these things may draw the reader’s brain away from the story and off on a tangent saying, “That’s not right.”

Good flow also means there are no awkward pauses or phrasing, no irregular word usage, and no sentences long enough to make you winded if reading it out loud. The reasons behind these problems are usually much harder to articulate. Authors and readers can often tell good flow from bad, but the mechanics are not easy to define.

It would be years later before I learned that “under God” came about through government editing of author Francis Bellamy’s original work. As it turns out, there have been five editing jobs on the Pledge since being published in the September 8th, 1892, edition of The Youth’s Companion. Each change either improves or disrupts the flow and I decided to try and figure out the reasons why. Let’s start at the beginning with the Pledge as it first appeared in The Youth’s Companion:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

The first editing on this piece came from the hand of Francis Bellamy himself. He inserted the word ‘to’ before “the Republic”:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

What does the alteration do for the statement? In the original form, “the Republic for which it stands” has only a passing relationship to the earlier subject/predicate “I pledge allegiance.” By adding the word ‘to’ in front of the phrase, the connection is made stronger thus improving the flow. The change also helps reduce some slight ambiguity of the word ‘it’ which could refer back to either ‘allegiance’ or ‘Flag.’ In the new form of the sentence, I not only pledge allegiance to my flag, but also to the republic for which my flag stands.

At some point in time, the colon in the Pledge gets changed to a comma. Since I couldn’t find exactly when this change happened, I’m going to take some license and examine what the change does while the sentence is in a simpler form:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

While use of either a colon or comma is grammatically correct, the tone is different depending on the choice. Read the version with the colon and then the one with the comma. Did you give a little more emphasis to the words “one nation” when reading the version with the colon? Was the flow a little more monotone when reciting the version with the comma? A colon adds some drama to the sentence while a comma is more casual. In this case, I think the colon is the better option because it fits in with the ceremonial nature of the Pledge. When grammar rules give you a choice, take care that the tone imparted by a colon is in line with the character and tempo of the overall piece.

In 1923, the National Flag Conference released a new version of the Pledge designed to take away any confusion immigrants might have about which flag they were honoring. The words “my flag” became “the flag of the United States”:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

The following year, the conference added the words “of America”:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Before adding “of America” the flow is choppy. Is it just coincidence or luck that using the full name of the country improves the flow? I don’t think so. Referring to our country as “the United States” is the common way of speaking. It’s only in formal situations that we add “of America.” The flow of the 1923 version is uneven because the casual usage of the name is at odds with the formal nature of the Pledge.

Congress adopted the Pledge as part of the national flag code in 1942 and it remained unchanged until 1954 when the words “under God” were added:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

So what did I hear that made the flow sound off to my young mind? The phrase “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” is complex with no verb or conjunction to help the brain process what is written. Even without the addition of “under God” the statement is hard to interpret. However, the extra words make it more difficult. The complexity becomes more apparent when you see the translation the brain has to do to understand both statements:

Before: one nation standing indivisible, with liberty and justice for all

After: one nation standing under God and indivisible, with liberty and justice for all

The difference may seem subtle, but it is important. I’ve never heard the Pledge spoken without a pause before the words “under God” even though there is no grammatical reason (e.g. a comma) to hesitate there. That stop in the flow is the brain doing a synaptic two-step trying to process the sentence. Tough enough for an adult to figure out let alone my grade school self!

10 comments

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    • dwhirsch on June 5, 2014 at 10:20 am
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    I’d extend that the “finger flow” example also works in non-fiction. Sometimes there are deliberate pauses for emphasis, different from fiction writing, but smooth flow is smooth flow regardless. I’ll have to try that method in my writing.

    I had no idea there was such a fussy grammatical history behind the Pledge. Now that you point it out, it does feel heavy and awkward, a stumbling block and not smooth. Good to point out “why.” I learned something today.

      • Sue Remisiewicz on June 8, 2014 at 5:57 pm
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      Thanks for sharing your perspective from the non-fiction point of view. I agree!

    • Claire Murray on May 26, 2014 at 5:41 pm
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    Really interesting blog. Makes me look at The Pledge very differently than before reading your piece.

      • Sue Remisiewicz on June 2, 2014 at 8:28 pm
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      The history is fascinating. Proof that one sentence can make quite an impact.

  1. I really liked the way you dissected each part and then put it back together. Really insightful.

      • Sue Remisiewicz on June 2, 2014 at 8:26 pm
      • Reply

      Thank you, Wendi!

    • Vicky Wright on May 25, 2014 at 2:17 am
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    SUE!! I love this post. I wondered about the flow in the same section of the pledge that you’re writing about. It always seemed clunky to me too. Thanks for looking it up and sharing with the rest of the class.

      • Sue Remisiewicz on June 2, 2014 at 8:23 pm
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      I had a lot of fun doing it! I’ve always been a sucker for extra credit assignments. 🙂

  2. Good blog, Sue. Enjoyed it and learned a lot. I have to use that ‘follow the finger’ trick more often.

      • Sue Remisiewicz on May 24, 2014 at 6:06 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks, Phil!

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