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What Does the "Big Picture" Mean?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase "the big picture" basically means the major, main, or important part of something. A person is described as seeing the big picture when he can understand a situation or concept as a whole rather than getting bogged down on specific details. For example, a business owner can be described as seeing the big picture if he can easily gauge whether a business matter is a success or likely to be successful on the whole rather than by picking apart every detail. In some regions, this phrase is a commonly used expressive phrase that is not meant to be interpreted literally.

People often use expressive phrases, called idioms, in their speech, especially when they speak to others in a casual manner. These types of phrases are meant to express thoughts and feelings in a non-literal manner. There are many types of idioms a person may use to express himself, and some of them are common in some regions yet not at all known in others. "The big picture" is one idiom that is most commonly used in the United States, though it may be heard in other English-speaking regions as well. A person is said to see the big picture when he gets the gist of something and is not distracted by details that may prove confusing.

If an individual has difficulty understanding this phrase, he may find it helpful to consider an example of the way it might be used. For instance, the leader of a large organization may have many successes and failures to consider when determining whether the organization overall is a success. Instead of getting mired in the evaluation of a single success or failure, he must evaluate the organization and its operations as a whole and then make his assessment. Being able to see past the specific details to the picture as a whole means a person can see the big picture.

A person who is not familiar with this idiom may become confused when he hears it. To a person who is not familiar with the phrase, "the big picture" may seem to mean a large picture of some sort. As such, the person who says these words may have to explain what he means to an individual who is not from a region in which it is common. If he speaks to an individual in the same region, however, his listener is likely to understand the phrase without any explanation.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a Language & Humanities writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By bythewell — On Jan 26, 2012

@Iluviaporos - Actually I think I've heard people say "look at the whole picture" before as well. I wonder if one came from the other.

I can kind of see the sense of it though. If you think of it in terms of maps, or details, often a smaller picture is taken from a larger one in order to show a specific area.

Looking at the big picture might mean looking at the whole thing, rather than the small section.

Really, though, language is formed so organically it's no wonder it has strange little quirks.

By lluviaporos — On Jan 25, 2012

The big picture is one of those phrases that gets said so often and so naturally that you hardly even think of it as anything but a natural thing to say.

Another one I read about recently was "long time, no see". Apparently that comes from when Chinese immigrants were first learning English about a hundred years ago.

I didn't even think of it as something that needed an origin. I hadn't even thought that it was an unusual phrase when compared to the rest of English.

Looking at the big picture doesn't even really make sense when you think about it. It would make sense to say, looking at the whole picture.

But, English doesn't often seem to make sense.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a Language & Humanities writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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