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What does "the Devil's in the Details" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The slang term “the devil is in the details” has a number of different senses. All of the meanings for the term boil down to the fact that it is often the small details of something which make it difficult or challenging. These details can prolong a task, or foil an otherwise straightforward dealing. Like many proverbs which involve the devil, it is meant to sound a note of caution. It may also be used to excuse or explain the obfuscation of an otherwise very simple project or task.

In one sense, one might say “the devil's in the details” to refer to very small but ultimately important components of a larger task. For example, performing a scientific experiment in a laboratory is a hugely involved task which can sometimes be highly dangerous. A small error at the beginning can translate into a useless experiment at the end, so experimenters are reminded that the devil's in the details. This reminder is intended to encourage the scientists to check their work, and to be thorough and careful in the lab.

In some cases, this sense will be used to explain why a task took longer than expected. Someone might say that they had projected a shorter completion time, not realizing that the devil's in the details. People generally use the proverb as an excuse in this sense, when they are trying to defuse anger about a time delay. The implied argument is that not attending to these details might set the devil loose, ultimately causing more work.

Some people also say that the devil's in the details when they examine a contract or agreement. Generally, the agreement looks reasonable at first glance, but a closer examination of the terms and small print reveals a problem. People who routinely sign such agreements usually learn to look them over very carefully, looking for the snag or issue which might ultimately make the deal untenable. This attention to detail is the hallmark of lawyers and accountants in particular.

Looking out for the small details in life is generally a good practice, since it greatly reduces the risk of surprise. While some surprises are pleasant, those planned by the devil are generally not, so it pays to avoid pratfalls which are preventable by remembering that the devil's in the details. This behavior is also often rewarded by the world in general, as you will gain a reputation for being careful and thoughtful as well as difficult to fool.

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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 anon945712 — On Apr 14, 2014

Often the expression is used when a project has fallen short of what one would expect (such as car with a paint job without a sufficient amount of prep-work done prior), or as a reminder that paying attention to critical details enables the final product to achieve a certain level of "finish".

By anon345245 — On Aug 17, 2013

Was there really a saying, "God is in the details"? Because knowing where this derives from would be fascinating. I can also think of criminal investigations.

I was actually thinking of another possible meaning before reading this, but it seems to have escaped me. Maybe that it's best to simplify processes as much as possible (i.e. "Keep it simple stupid!")? I don't know.

By anon343167 — On Jul 27, 2013

i love this site! Thanks to all for creating it. I am working on a truly profound concept and was curious what "the devil is in the details" meant. My bent on it is seeing the forest through the trees. Most of us start with the details and work toward the bigger picture. Try starting with the forest, and don't bother with the trees until you understand the concept.

By anon177670 — On May 19, 2011

The devil in the details appears when one tries to steer processes in such a manner as to achieve a desired outcome. It appears for instance very often in engineering projects.

And it is practically unavoidable in pretty much any aspect of life.

There is actually a complete branch of mathematics based on this: the mathematics of non-linear dynamic systems. Better known under its popular name Chaos Theory.

There are mainly two ways to handle the devil in the details:

1. Let the process have its natural flow. This is the so-called "go with the flow" approach. Due to the fact that you don't care what the outcome will be the devil simply won't appear.

2. If you can't withstand the urge to have things going your way yo have to be flexible and creative. This is the so called "trial and error" approach. Requires a lot of energy and is prone to failure.

By Alphomega — On Apr 22, 2011

To clarify that further: There well may be an act deliberate "evil" in how something came about, but so often we focus too hard on that and not on the outcome. Something good can come of some less palatable methods. And something damage done, may outweigh the good accomplished, or the methodology may have a hidden purpose.

This latter point, is, I think what we are being warned about in the axiom, which is, a twist of the original "God is in the details". When do find the devil in the details we may just prove that "the road to hell was paved with good intentions".

By Alphomega — On Apr 22, 2011

Often, it could well be that the devil is in the pursuit of the details. Our family's small company, in the last year or so, was torn apart by one member trying desperately to find out how and who was responsible for something that happened when all that was needed was to help fix the problem.

From this I have learned that it is more important to focus on the "what" that needs to be rectified. The same could be said for our parliamentarians. Spending too much time and effort on looking for the devil, perhaps just creates him.

By anon151982 — On Feb 12, 2011

All very good observations. Like most "proverbs", although originally there was probably a pretty specific meaning, they are stated in such a way to be easily remembered (pithy?). This ambiguity is good in that it forces us (the ones who care) to think through the concepts. I have always thought of this proverb as cautioning to pay attention to details, but I recently found myself in a situation where paying attention to the small things was overkill and thwarting progress. I guess this would be akin to "paralysis by analysis".

By anon145887 — On Jan 25, 2011

The potential duality of the interpretation is in itself a devilish thing, is it not?

Either the details are too much, or the details are viewed with a lack of depth or understanding. Who can say?

By anon117225 — On Oct 09, 2010

I believe also that “the devil is in the details” is used in the sense, where too much detail might deter us from the main focus.

By GiraffeEars — On Jul 13, 2010

Another cliché about the devil is “sell my soul to the devil”. Someone might say, "If I do...I might as well sell my soul to the devil". This is essentially saying that following through on the action in question will result in that person becoming morally bankrupt. Others might consider their motivation for doing this action as immoral or a sin.

By leilani — On Feb 23, 2010

I can see how long time agreements or contracts are important to be reviewed carefully.

So we have to be careful, but also discerning in knowing when to pay attention to detail, and when it is fine to take a little risk.

Being always super cautious can be restrictive.

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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