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I have been staring at this sentence for 5 minutes:

I looked up, though I could not see his face, nor he mine.

"Nor he mine" seems...off to me. Is this grammatically correct?

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    I am having more trouble with the "though" here. It is short for although, and the rest of the sentence is begging for action! "I looked up, although I couldn't see his face, I wildly swung my arms in his direction!" His state of being shouldn't even be a consideration until you deal with the though.
    – Gary Hayes
    Jul 29 '20 at 6:16
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    @GaryHayes Why do you think the rest of the sentence is begging for action? And why is there trouble with "though"? That "though" indicates a contrast, but that contrast doesn't involve action -- rather, it is that although the character looked up, they (?unexpectedly) couldn't see the man's face. Your sentence in quotes seems off -- if I understand it right, it has a main clause, a subsidiary clause, then another main clause.
    – Rosie F
    Jul 29 '20 at 7:40
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    @GaryHayes The sentence is just a rearrangement of "{Even though / Although} I looked up, I could not see his face" (or, the 2 sentences "I looked up. Even though [I did so], I could not see his face") Jul 29 '20 at 9:09
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    @GaryHayes What's wrong with this sentence? "I looked up, athough I could not see his face." It's not interesting, but it's certainly grammatically correct.
    – user91988
    Jul 29 '20 at 14:36
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    Comment only: As a long time well read British English speaker (in New Zealand) I would read that and understand it without noting anything unusual. It's somewhat unusual in modern speech but would be well understood by most - and especially older people. Jul 30 '20 at 1:26
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It's elliptical, that is, it drops some words for economy of expression, since the words omitted will be obvious to the native speaker.

I looked up, though I could not see his face, nor could he see mine.

American Heritage Dictionary "ellipsis"
"1. a. The omission of a word or phrase necessary for a complete syntactical construction but not necessary for understanding.
b. An example of such omission."

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  • Arguably, "nor" pairs with "neither", so that's elliptical as well. Jul 30 '20 at 2:07
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    @Acccumulation: nor can pair with neither, but "(negative sentence) nor (negative sentence with inversion)" is common (and somewhat literary). I don't think it is ellipsis. It is an "afterthought" conjunction, whereas neither ... nor is "forethought", and soe can change the meaning. Also, neither there would have to come at the start, and so require inversion in the first sentence,
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 30 '20 at 10:31
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Yes, it's grammatical.

In the context of the sentence, nor he mine is a shortened form of the following:

nor [could] he [see the face that was] mine

The missing words are assumed from the context of what came before, and understandable from the parallel structure of the sentence.

Such phrasing was more common in English from many years ago, but it is still used today.

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    I would say that nor he mine is idiomatic. Yes, it's omitted some words, but the form for doing this is common. Jul 29 '20 at 8:11
  • I'm not sure that makes it idiomatic. It's not figurative, and I think it is possible for a non-native English speaker to discern the meaning from the words. Jul 29 '20 at 10:27
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    -1 That's the point of an ellipse: It's an ungrammatical sentence that can be reconstructed to a grammatical sentence. Hence it is also not idiomatic, because all words mean exactly what they mean. Jul 29 '20 at 10:44
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    @rexkogitans By that logic, Yes would be ungrammatical. But common ellipses and elliptical structures are considered grammatical by the vast majority of people. (I'm not actually sure if you were agreeing or disagreeing with that.) And idiomatic simply means that something is commonly used and understood. Both of those things are true here. Jul 29 '20 at 13:02
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    @rexkogitans Only if you're a prescriptivist. This construction is common and has been for so long that most of us consider it to be grammatical.
    – user91988
    Jul 29 '20 at 14:38
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The sentence follows a pattern of leaving out words in cases that a reader may understand those words from context. The general pattern is called ellipsis, and the specific type for this sentence is called gapping.

To learn how we think about removing words, it may help to show several changes in a sentence, one after another.

Consider a simple sentence. It is a run-on sentence, with two independent clauses separated by a comma and a conjunction.

You should put a mask on your face, and I should put a mask on my face.

Notice the parallel structure of the two clauses. Other than the person (you vs. I), they are the same.

This sentence is clear, but also longer than we may prefer, and awkward to read, because of the repeated information. We may wish to shorten it.

You should put a mask on your face, and I should put one on mine.

This change is familiar. In the second clause, we replaced both noun phrases ("a mask", "my face") with pronouns ("one", "mine"). The pronouns refer to the same noun phrases in the first clause, so the change has not removed any information from the sentence.

The sentence is still longer than we prefer. The effect of the change was less than we might hope.

Of the words in the second clause, several provide no information not in the first. We can remove some of them, without changing the meaning of the sentence.

You should put a mask on your face, and I one on mine.

Although the verb ("should put") no longer appears in the second clause, we understand that it is the same as in the first.

Two further words are not needed.

You should put a mask on your face, and I mine.

Without the direct object ("one") and preposition ("on"), the second clause shows only the difference in meaning from the first, without repeating any information.

The words that express the difference are the only ones that we need. We simply wrote a sentence with two clauses of the same structure, and then removed words from the second clause that were repeated from the first. The remaining words appear in the same order, one next to the other.

When we read the second clause, we see two nouns. We know they have some relationship, so we look for that relationship in the nearest place where we might find it. We know that the subject is before the object, just as in other independent clauses.

This structure is uncommon in vernacular, but in literature, an author may use it to help the reader to keep a focused mind on the important details, without the distraction of the repeated information.

We can use the same structure, but with a different meaning. Suppose we are helping each other by putting the masks on each other.

You should put a mask on my face, and I yours.

The original example follows the same pattern. Here it is, with extra words to make the meaning clear.

I looked up, though I could not see his face, nor could he see mine.

Reaching the ending of the sentence, "nor he mine", we notice no verb, and also that the subject and object are reversed from earlier. This structure emphasizes that the relationship between the characters is the same in both directions, because it presents two directions of relationship, but identifies only a single kind of relationship.

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    The important info that you need for learners is the following: a) the two clauses must be coordinated, in other words joined by a coordinating conjunction such as and, but, nor, or b) it is the verbs that are usually left out c) there must be a different object (or complement or adjunct) in the second clause, after the gap where the missing verb(s) would normally be. Jul 30 '20 at 10:31
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    @Araucaria: In the earlier exchange it was unclear what specific change you might recommend, and it seems still is unclear.
    – epl
    Jul 30 '20 at 10:40

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