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You can't see the forest FOR the trees or you can't see the forest THROUGH the trees?
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2008/01/26
12:23am
Kierf
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My wife and I were discussing this saying. I was adamant that it is ‘for’ and not ‘through’. Obviously my wife disagrees because ‘through’ makes more sense.

We are both familiar with the meaning. The meaning being one is overconcerned about details and cannot see the big picture.

So…please, confirm that I am correct and my wife is absolutely wrong. :D ;)

-Kierf!

2008/01/26
7:21am
Paradox
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I’m for for, for it is the only way that I’ve ever heard it. I predict your wife’s through is through.

2008/01/26
8:08am
Kierf
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I’ve only heard for. I texted 4 people last night, all came back saying through, but were not sure since I had mentioned it.

They’re gonna get pwned! :D

2008/01/26
8:16am
San Diego, California
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Yes, it’s definitely “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” It makes perfect sense because “for” here means “because of” or “due to.” Ask your wife is she knows the saying about “For want of a nail.” It’s the same “for.”

Here’s the entry for “can’t see the forest for the trees” in the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

2008/01/26
10:05am
Precise Edit
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“For” the trees. Seeing the forest “through” the trees doesn’t make sense because if you look through the trees, you are looking past the trees to the non-forest area beyond, which is not the forest. You can see the forest through the window, for example, but not through the trees.

However, this is an interesting question. Perhaps we should add a section to our training manual about confused idioms, but this might be putting all our eggs before the horse.

2008/01/26
5:34pm
dilettante
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Oh dear.

Somehow I picked the phrase up long ago as “can’t see the trees for the forest.” I’m not alone (this version gets 2810 hits in Google), but definitely in the minority.

Still, you can argue it makes sense either way. (I’ll take whatever scrap of comfort I can get.)

2008/01/27
9:19am
Kierf
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What is the history of this saying?

2008/01/28
10:14am
San Diego, CA
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I don’t know the history of the saying, but I have a hunch there are probably analogous expressions in other languages. Anyone know of one?

2008/01/28
3:02pm
Court
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I have a strong recollection that his saying came from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which came out in 1952. I read this book (begrudgingly) in high school, and I’m pretty sure I remember reading it as well as being informed by my English teacher that this was where the phrase originated. My memory of this book is hazy at best (if not subconsciously blocked), but what vague memory I do have of the entry is that it was dialog between two characters as they traveled by car next to a forest.

I can’t seem to find a searchable online excerpt, and frankly I don’t have the patience even to scan that book again, so maybe if someone here has that book or is more familiar with it, they can back me up. :)

2008/01/28
5:48pm
dilettante
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I hate to destroy your confidence in your English teacher, but here’s an example of the phrase from 1861.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (excerpt here) puts it as early as 1546.

2008/01/29
12:59am
Felix the Black Cat
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Grant Barrett said:

Yes, it’s definitely “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” It makes perfect sense because “for” here means “because of” or “due to.” Ask your wife is she knows the saying about “For want of a nail.” It’s the same “for.”

Here’s the entry for “can’t see the forest for the trees” in the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.


Thanks for the clarification! I’ve long been confused about this phrase, since, as it’s written, I thought it could have the opposite meaning, as in being too focused on the big picture to notice details. It makes much more sense to me now, knowing what the intended meaning of “for” was in this phrase.

2008/01/29
11:53am
Paradox
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dilettante said

“can’t see the trees for the forest.”


I’ve heard this many times, often jocularly, but basically meaning the opposite of “can’t see the forest for the trees.”

In other words, you can’t see the details because the “big-picture” is clouding your vision (an equally hazardous state to be in!).

2008/01/30
7:21am
tlcgolf
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yep, you can’t see the big picture because the details, the minutiae get in the way, fill up your vision. you can’t see the forest because you are standing in the middle of it, with the trees, up close and personal, all around you. so, because “for” means “because of,” you “can’t see the forest for the trees.”

2008/01/30
4:43pm
dilettante
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Just came across an alternate version while (or whilst) reading Michael Palin’s “Diaries 1969-1979″:

“losing sight of the wood for the trees”

Is this version more common in the UK?

2008/01/30
9:15pm
San Diego, CA
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1546? Wow.

Thanks for that, dilettante. I’m still convinced there must be simliarly apt phrases in other languages — maybe about trees, maybe not.

2013/02/17
7:39am
Rhododendron
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I am writing something that will be translated, and I found myself using this phrase, so out of curiosity I searched for its use in other languages. I found this page, of course, but I also found “los árboles nos impiden ver el bosque” in Spanish and “inte se skogen för alla träd” in Swedish.

Update: In the discussion forums on wordreference.com I found a thread reporting similar phrases about forests and trees in about a dozen languages, from Greek to Vietnamese. I wonder if the phrases all came from a common origin or arose independently?

Now it’s time to stop searching the internet and get back to writing!

2013/02/21
4:37pm
tromboniator
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dilettante said
Just came across an alternate version while (or whilst) reading Michael Palin’s “Diaries 1969-1979″:

“losing sight of the wood for the trees”

Is this version more common in the UK?

I’ve encountered this twice in the past week, one definitely from England, the other unknown but very possibly UK.

2013/02/23
12:19am
Robert
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Have never seen this, though I wouldn’t mind it: Can’t see the ocean for the sand castles !

2013/07/29
8:27pm
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I too have been seeking the correct way to say….”cant see the forest for the trees”……but after analyzing this…it absolutely makes no sense…how can the forest be “for” the trees…?…also using “to the trees”…also makes no sense…how can the forest be “to” the trees…even if you use the presumptive word “being”….then it would read…….cant see the forest “being for” the trees…or saying….cant see the forest “being to” the trees ..still….you can easily see it’s nonsensical meaning…..obviously there is something missing here…and/or the arraignment is wrong……now to say….”through the trees”….actually makes a little sense because the presumption of the phrase “by looking” is meant…..which would then look like…..cant see the forest “by looking through” the trees…gives the perception that you are standing within the forest looking at the surrounding trees and the trees beyond it…implying that you are inside of it not seeing that you are in it…..but still using this phrase requires too much presumption…..there are missing words leaving the presumptive idea too ambiguous…….also if you were to say…cant see the forest “by looking at” the trees..would would require presumption that you are already in the forest….but it could also mean that you are outside the forest looking in at the trees at the face of the forest..so that could go either way….it is half right and half wrong………conclusively….. though I am no english authoritarian…. not even in the least sense of the word….my guess would be………it appears that the correct phrase should be…considering the inclusion of a presumptive condition that was at first not included in the first 3 phrases used to shorten it…..which I think is why this popular phrase is off the mark and controversial…because one wishes to exclude a few very important conditions…..so clearly…to say…….cant see the forest “from” the trees….or…”from amongst” the trees….or…”being from amongst” the trees….or…”being too close”….or….”by looking at” the trees…though some of these require presumptive conditions….they do seem to make more sense……..than the first 3….because part of the presumption is taken away…and part precondition is inserted…..another words….I just changed a few words…or…..I reworded it…..adding a few more words to add more description……..

 

2013/07/29
9:00pm
Dick
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I think one reason for the confusion with this phrase is that there are so many definitions of “for.”  In this case “for” means “because of.”  Grant says this in post number 4 above.  If you substitute “because of” in place of “for” you have “You can’t see the forest because of the trees.”  This makes perfect sense.  You can not see the whole forest because you are looking at two or three trees.  It really doesn’t matter from where you are looking, in the forest or out of the forest, because you can focus on only a few trees from either perspective.

I agree that “for” is the word, but on a contrary note, Precise Edit in post number 5 above made me picture a situation in which I may be standing inside of the forest looking between and around (through) the trees until all I see is outside of the forest.  In this case I could not see the forest because I would be looking through the trees. (This is not what it is, so don’t let it lead you astray.)

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