see the forest for the trees

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Alternative forms[edit]


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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.
    Smith is good at detail, but can't see the forest for the trees.
  2. (idiomatic, in the negative, by extension) To be overwhelmed by detail to the point where it obscures the overall situation.

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 tree" 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.


See also[edit]