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 ;)
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.
"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.
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. :)
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.
“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!).
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."
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!
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.