see the forest for the trees

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English[edit]

Alternative forms[edit]

Etymology[edit]

(This etymology is missing or incomplete. Please add to it, or discuss it at the Etymology scriptorium.)

John Heywood documented the English use of the proverb in 1546.[1]

Pronunciation[edit]

  • (file)

Verb[edit]

see the forest for the trees (third-person singular simple present sees the forest for the trees, present participle seeing the forest for the trees, simple past saw the forest for the trees, past participle seen the forest for the trees)

  1. (idiomatic) To discern an overall pattern from a mass of detail; to see the big picture, or the broader, more general situation.
  2. (idiomatic, in the negative, by extension) To be overwhelmed by detail to the point where it obscures the overall situation.
    Smith is good at detail, but can't see the forest for the trees.

Usage notes[edit]

  • This is almost always used in negative constructions, often starting with can't, as it is a negative polarity item.
  • The portion "forest for the trees" may seem grammatically nonsensical to modern speakers and learners who are not familiar with, or expecting, the Old English meaning of for (especially outside of an Old English context).
    • This older usage of for means "because of" or "due to", also found in "for want of a nail". The idiom may be more readily parsed today in the form [can't] see the forest, but for the trees.

Translations[edit]

See also[edit]

  1. ^ The Proverbes of John Heywood[1], 1546:
    "You cannot see the wood for trees. Continued proverbial, being found in an anti-popish tract of the reign of Charles II. From him who sees no wood for trees/ And yet is busie as the bees/ From him that's settled on his lees/ And speaketh not without his fees,/ Libera nos. A Letany for S. triers, 1682."