The following line can be found in the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin:

a laconic language that frequently lapses into the provocatively elliptical and imparts a sensation of breathlessness.

The line talks about the style in which the novel is composed: to the point (laconic) language that makes the reader fall into the "provocatively elliptical."

What does the phrase provocatively elliptical mean in this context?

2 Answers 2


Elliptical, referring to language, means with parts missing. There's a lot of words get missed out, according to some formal grammars, in normal English speech. We miss out repeated subjects, or even subjects and verbs, or just verbs. We can have several subjects and/or several verbs with just one object. That's all ways of being elliptical in terms of grammar and syntax, but you can also be elliptical in terms of content, leaving things for the reader to guess.

Provocatively is an adverb, meaning in a provocative manner or in such a way as to be provocative. The degree to which the writing is elliptical, or the way in which it is elliptical, is provocative.


I don't know the writer in question, but in essence it seems to be saying that the author's writing can be so terse, brief or succinct as to be provocative. "Provocatively" is usually used in two contexts ... provoking desire, usually sexual, and provoking anger or irritation. We can confidently assume it is the latter here.

So ...

The text is so terse and succinct that it can verge on provoking irritation.

This was a deliberate choice by the author to illustrate the state of mind of the main character, which changes during the course of the book.

  • Why is the word elliptical used?
    – user76377
    Apr 10, 2019 at 12:12
  • Things that are provocative do not just provoke desire, anger or irritation; they can provoke interest, admiration, curiosity, etc. Apr 10, 2019 at 12:14
  • @user76377. You'd really need to ask the author. They used it because they thought it was the best choice.
    – fred2
    Apr 10, 2019 at 12:16
  • @MichaelHarvey To provoke as a verb does not specify what it provokes. Provocatively as an adverb usually has an association with sexual provocation or irritability and anger, and dictionaries reflect that. It is certainly unusual that an adverb is more restricted in sense than a verb, but provocatively usually is. In other words, if a woman "acts provocatively" we know she is not provoking curiosity. If a politician speaks provocatively, she is probably not provoking admiration.
    – fred2
    Apr 10, 2019 at 12:17
  • Art, including writing, is frequently provocative, and the intention is not always (or even often) to cause anger or sexual desire. A woman who was told by her boss to be quiet might provocatively hum, or drum her fingers on her desk, etc. No sex involved. Apr 10, 2019 at 12:23

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