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What do People Mean When They Say Someone can't See the Forest for the Trees?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The saying that someone "can't see the forest for the trees" means that he is so involved with the details of a situation that he loses sight of the larger issue. It is a fairly common expression in English, though the use of "for" can be confusing for some people, since it is a more archaic meaning in this idiom. This expression can also be reversed, indicating that a person loses sight of details and becomes engrossed in the whole.

Basic Meaning

Someone who can't see the forest for the trees has typically become so focused on details that he or she begins to ignore the overall situation. People might also phrase this expression as "you can't see the wood for the trees," which is the more common form in the UK. A person accused of being unable to see the forest may want to take a step back from the situation, to regain a wider perspective on a problem.

It is very easy to get caught up in minutia of a situation, especially when someone works on a problem for an extended period of time, or has only been working on one aspect of a larger issue. Being aware of this tendency can make people better problem solvers, as they know that it's a good idea to occasionally talk with other people about the aspects of the project that they are working on. Such outside advice about a situation can help a person gain perspective and approach a problem from a new angle.

History of the Expression

As early as the 1500s, "you can't see the forest for the trees" was in wide enough use that it was published in collections of proverbs and slang. As anyone who has been in a forest knows, it can be easy to fall into the trap of just looking at the individual trees, rather than considering the forest as a whole. Some confusion can arise over the use of "wood" rather than "forest," because it may imply a person is focused on the wood of the trees rather than the objects themselves. In this usage, however, "wood" refers to a small forest, rather than the substance of which trees consist.

Reversal and Other Meanings

This proverb is also sometimes reversed, as in "you can't see the trees for the forest," referencing the idea that it is also possible to be too broad when looking at a situation. Someone who makes sweeping pronouncements without considering various details could exhibit just as much of a logical flaw as someone who only focuses on the details. It is common for executives to be accused of not seeing the trees for the forest, especially when they make exacting and impossible demands that suggest a complete unfamiliarity with the complexities of a project.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By lighth0se33 — On Jan 21, 2013

I try to say this phrase to myself at least once while I'm working on a painting. As an artist, it is important to remember to step back from your work now and then and make sure that the big picture, or “forest,” is coming together the way you want it to.

If you don't, it's easy to wind up with a bunch of perfected details that don't go together at all. It's easy to disrupt the balance of a good painting by filling in the details before you have the framework laid out.

So, I make it a rule to do the background first and then only do the same level of detail on each section before taking a step back to see the thing as a whole. I can paint over things or wipe them off before the paint dries, and I have to do this before it is too late, or I will ruin the whole painting.

By kylee07drg — On Jan 21, 2013

For a long time, I couldn't see how great my boyfriend was because I spent too much time focusing on the little things I didn't like about him. I almost broke up with him over stupid stuff.

Then, I went through a tragedy, and I saw his true character come out. He was there for me, and his loyalty and love erased all the little “trees” that had stood in the way. I began to appreciate the forest, and the trees didn't bother me so much anymore.

By cloudel — On Jan 20, 2013

I have a friend who has had trouble with credit card debt in the past. This idiom reminds me of how she reacted to that debt. The poor girl tried to break everything down into increments instead of dealing with the big issue.

She drove herself crazy trying to pay off a little bit of debt on each card every week. She still wound up with crazy interest charges, because there was no way she could pay off enough of the balance to avoid this by the due date every month.

I finally told her that she needed to take on her debt as a whole rather than in small pieces. She went to a debt consolidation agency and got help. She is no longer driving herself nuts chipping away at every little tree in the forest one at a time.

By JackWhack — On Jan 19, 2013

I think of this expression when I think of concentrating on details that are all very similar and pose the same problem without examining the problem as a whole. I envision a forest of pine trees that are all about the same height and same color, and I picture myself trying to analyze each one in a different way, rather than take on the entire forest, which is really composed of all the same kind of thing, anyway.

People can spend an alarming amount of time stressing over the small things that make up the big problem without ever getting to the source of the issue. If they would remove themselves from amongst the trees, maybe they could see the forest and get an epiphany.

By anon310217 — On Dec 20, 2012

This expression is widely used today as not being able to get a clear handle on a scenario (can't see the forest) because of all the input (for the trees).

It's similar to not knowing the color of the box you're in until you start thinking outside of the box.You need to slow down and obtain an objective perspective.

By anon291727 — On Sep 16, 2012

exactly..."for" means "because of" so:

you can't see the forest (big picture) because of the trees (details).

By anon264298 — On Apr 27, 2012

So what is the phrase for only seeing the big picture and forgetting the details?

By anon143573 — On Jan 17, 2011

To anon127050: you are interpreting the words in a modern sense, rather than the old fashioned way. In this phrase the word "for" means "because of". You might imagine adding the words "are in the way" to the end to get a better idea of the way the word "for" is being used.

By anon127050 — On Nov 15, 2010

I've always thought that this particular expression was awkward and badly worded. It seems to say the exact opposite of what it means.

If the forest represents the big picture, and the trees represent the details, then wouldn't it make more sense to say "you're *only* seeing the forest for the trees"? Or maybe "you can't see the forest for the forest".

By aplenty — On Aug 29, 2010

I love hearing new or rarely spoken idioms. People must use these expressions in the right situation though, or the expression sounds cliché and played. I almost feel embarrassed for people when they speak in nothing but idioms and clichés. They begin to remind me of a cheesy car salesperson, or a greedy banker.

I think one of my favorite idioms is "...came up smelling of roses". People use this idiomatic expression to describe someone who emerges from a sticky situation unscathed and with his or her honor intact.

By anon16149 — On Jul 30, 2008

Depends on whom you are talking to. If you are dealing with a capitalist you're better off resorting to "Penny Wise Pound Foolish"

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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