Can’t see the forest for the tree


What does Can’t see the forest for the tree mean?

The idiom can’t see the forest for the tree refers to a person who fails to see the bigger picture because they are too focused on one single, small detail.

Sometimes when you are standing in the middle of a huge forest, all you can see are the couple trees that are immediately surrounding you.

It is easy to put all your focus and energy into these particular trees, but you fail to notice all the hundreds and thousands of other trees in the very same forest.

That’s when it’s good to take a step out of the woods and gain some perspective.


What's the origin of Can’t see the forest for the tree?

The proverb has been recorded as far back as 1546, in John Heywood’s collection.

The original version, “you can’t see the wood for the trees” has been around even longer, since 1533, and the first mentioned proverb is derived from this, likely by paraphrasing.

Spread & Usage

How did Can’t see the forest for the tree spread?

This expression is mainly used in negative contexts, for example if a politician has abandoned some greater issues because they focused too much of one particular item – for example building a wall.

Alternative music band Confide released their track “Can’t See The Forest For The Trees” in 2009, as part of their album “Shout The Truth”.

In 2015, implied that “Can’t see the forest for the tree” is a particular type of Christians, meaning that while God and Jesus always sees the Bigger Picture, humans sometimes fail to do so.

External resources

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