In §111 of his Philosophical Investigation, Ludwig Wittgenstein writes (my hopefully not-too-inept translation1):

Let’s ask ourselves: why do we perceive a grammatical joke as deep? (And that is what philosophical depth is.)

I would have guessed that a "grammatical joke" (ein grammatischer Witz) was something like "wordplay", except that I rarely find wordplay particularly deep. In fact, I can't readily think of an example of wordplay that could be plausibly described as "deep", or even "deep-looking".

Therefore, I must conclude that "grammatical joke" refers to something other than mere wordplay? Something more specific maybe?

Can anyone shed some light on this? E.g. Is grammatischer Witz a Wittgensteinism? Or is it a common expression in German (or perhaps Austrian or even Viennese German)? In this case, does it have a special significance that is not captured by the literal translation "grammatical joke"? If, on the other hand, it is a Wittgensteinism, does Wittgenstein give any example in any of his writings of something that he explicitly identifies as a "grammatischer Witz"/"grammatical joke"?

1 The original in German says (emphasis in the original):

Fragen wir uns: Warum empfinden wir einen grammatischen Witz als tief. (Und das ist ja die philosophische Tiefe.)

  • 1
    I'm not sure if 'grammatical joke' is what Wittgenstein meant when he wrote 'grammatischer Witz'. It's rarely used like this nowadays, but 'Witz' used to have another meaning: someone is 'gewitzt', if he's smart and if someone does something smart, it has 'Witz'. Even though the grammar of this sentence doesn't suggest this meaning of Witz, I think it's the particularly smart grammatical jokes he's talking about.
    – Ben
    Nov 25, 2013 at 8:36

3 Answers 3


I am fairly certain that 'grammatischen Witz' is not a technical term in Wittgenstein's writings. I cannot recall another instance where he uses it either. Nor, I believe, is it a common German expression, referring to something that is lost in translation when one renders it as 'grammatical joke'.

As for what he means by depth in §111, I have no time to write now because I'm at the airport, but I will post this answer to save it and will edit later with a full answer.

  • So, are you going to post the full answer? :) Jan 17, 2013 at 5:48
  • Still nothing. :(
    – bg5
    Dec 21, 2017 at 17:07

Is there something shallow about "wordplay?" ––Perhaps. I find it interesting that you "rarely find wordplay particularly deep," and you "can't readily think of an example of wordplay that could be plausibly described as "deep", or even "deep-looking." Of course, it is interesting because you presume that philosophical depth is not superficial.

There are numerous grammatical jokes: I would look into some of Lewis Carroll's writing both for their quality and Wittgenstein's familiarity with his writing––Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass features a conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice; it's cute, and it addresses the question of meaning, in a humorous manner. A professor of mine once told me that one of Wittgenstein's favorite grammatical jokes was the following.

What's the difference between a hairdresser and a sculpter? ––One curls-up and dyes, the other makes faces and busts.

Now, it's not the funniest of jokes (or even grammatical jokes): for one, I'm unsure if there were even sexual connotations of "makes faces and busts" when Wittgenstein was alive. There are others as well: the famous "eats shoots and leaves" panda joke, numerous accidental newspaper headlines, mistranslation and so on. For example, "firefighter helps burn victim" is funny(ish) because of worldplay.

Perhaps, it is the familiar meaning of the phrase or joke coupled with another, often, ridiculous meaning that lends the phrase or joke its particular sense of depth. What gives a phrase its familiar meaning (by familiar, I mean something like common-sense or obvious) is the context, in which it appears––or the circumstances, in which it is said. Or, to put it another way, it is the familiarity of the context/circumstances when a word/phrase/sentence is used that gives meaning to the phrase/sentence. In unfamiliar circumstances, or if the phrase occurs without a context (as jokes, esp. grammatical jokes, seem to do), then the meaning may seem to be hidden. The meaning, it is said, is beneath the surface. (Apparent Depth.) But if we know, for example, that firefighters don't tend to hurt people, headline writers are liable to make mistakes, and so on then familiar meaning is clear––even if the grammar points to the possibility of another interpretation.

The problem is that we tend to think of philosophical issues as deep. Yet, we use those same sentence constructions, which contain words like "being" and "know," in everyday language. Extraordinarily, in ordinary circumstances, we are seldom dumbstruck when someone says, "I know that such-and-such is the case." Yet, when doing philosophy, "what we know" and "what Knowledge is" are apparently very deep questions.

But it is important to keep in mind that it “is only in normal cases that the use of a word is clearly laid out in advance for [people]; [they] know, are in no doubt, what [they] have to say in this or that case” (PI, §142). And further, the “forms of language have the character of depth,” and this character of depth produces false appearances and misuses of words (PI, §111). For words like "betting" and "telling," we are mistaken to think of them as "of the same kind." Wittgenstein would say that they have the same "surface grammar," yet differ in their "depth grammar."

("To bet" is to utter "I bet...." It is a speech act like "to promise, "to bequeath," and so on . "To tell" is not.––If interested in this look into J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words and John Searle's "Speech Acts.")

These are all reasons why a strict grammatical analysis of a sentence will not reveal its meaning. For example, the question "can you help me with this" is often not a question; it is much more often the expression of a wish or a command. These sorts of problems always arise when non-native speakers converse with native speakers. (But these problems should also point to obstacles in translation––esp. from dead languages!)

Anyway, there's much more that could be said about the issues surrounding grammatical jokes. But if you're interested in Wittgenstein and these sorts of issues, I'd recommend John Verdi's book Fat Wednesday: Wittgenstein on Aspects. It is quite clear and clever.


I think the form of 'grammatical joke' he has in mind is based on the 'grammar' of a sub-language or language game, not of a natural language, when we make a move in one language game that would be absolutely perfect in a different game, but is totally wrong in the game in question.

Like the Monty Python argument about whether the argument being paid for qualifies as an argument, and not just flat contradiction, even though it consists of different phrasings of a flat contradiction, the starting of which causes the customer to be charged for an additional argument, because otherwise the professional arguer has to stop arguing.

The notion of paying for argument as a performance wraps around and becomes absurd, the one is part of one kind of reality, the other is part of another. At a certain level, the very best forms of this kind of humor do strike me as deep, until I unwind them. And the misunderstanding, of course, needs to be novel. Another take on the used trope does not work over and over again.

He references this kind of absurd performance as a joke in the Blue Book, and I am pretty sure this is still the general idea. I am hoping the word is not really about humor, because they are not good jokes, even for back then. Then again, given the examples of jokes he supposedly liked above, maybe he was just extremely easily amused. And he was German, after all.

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