see the forest for the trees

From Wiktionary, the free dictionary
Jump to navigation Jump to search



Alternative forms




(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]





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, chiefly in the negative) 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.
    • 1902, Emily Constance Baird Cook, Highways and Byways in London:
      It is, indeed, the principal drawback to the study of London that she is too vast—that the student is ever in danger of "not seeing the forest for the trees."
    • 1916, Albert Einstein (tr. Robert W. Lawson), “Preface”, in Relativity: The Special and General Theory:
      On the other hand, I have purposely treated the empirical physical foundations of the theory in a "step-motherly" fashion, so that readers unfamiliar with physics may not feel like the wanderer who was unable to see the forest for the trees.
    • 1919, Louis Tracy, The Strange Case of Mortimer Fenley, page 96:
      Your only failing is that you can't see the forest for the trees.

Usage notes

  • This is almost always used in negative constructions, often starting with can't, as it is a negative polarity item.



See also



  1. ^ Heywood, John (1546) The Proverbes of John Heywood[1]:
    "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."