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Tony :That guy can’t see the forest through the trees.
Google ngrams tells a tale of a tried and true phrase of “the forest for the trees” vs. a johnny-come-lately “the forest through the trees.”
Finally seeing the forest
I hope this Google ngrams helps people finally see the forest here.
Martha Barnette said
… analogous expressions in other languages. Anyone know of one?
Part of a most magnificent and terrible poem:
Plus drôle que le poisson
Qui vit dans la mer sans savoir la mer.
By one translation with a tiny bit of liberty,
even stranger than the fish
that couldn’t see the ocean for the water.
No, that’s too much liberty!
I understand the meaning of the phrase “cant see the forest for the trees” as this. the word “for” is a preposition meaning belonging to. such as a cupboard for the cups, or wheels for the car. or a forest for the trees. meaning this is a place for trees to be. a forest as well as a cupboard are concepts. a cupboard doesn’t stop being a cupboard because it has no cups in it. a car doesn’t stop being a car because it has no wheels, and a forest doesn’t stop being a forest because it has no trees in it. it is still a forest. and if all you see is the trees as just being trees, and not the forest, then you could cut it all down (the small details) and the forest (bigger picture) will forever be changed. (towns cities and other human development yet it is supposed to be the forest for the trees, not towns or cities.) even though a forest is still a forest. a forest for trees is different. and if you cant see that, then this place for trees is ruined. or the bigger picture is ruined. so to me its always meant to be mindful of the bigger picture or the details could lead you astray.
There aren’t many forests around. I think I first saw one when I was in my twenties. There are lots of woods, though. In the 1950s, there were typically woods in the center of each section. They provided heat for the farmhouse, and protein as well. I’ve spent many an hour with a squirrel gun in my hands. Many of them were bulldozed as farmers hungered for room to expand crops – and because dope dealers would plant marijuana and shoot anyone who entered the woods.
It seems to be city folk, who might see a forest on vacation, say can’t see the forest for the trees. Midwestern farm boys say can’t see the woods for the trees. Amd a woods does block the view, which changes the meaning somewhat. If you can’t see the woods for the trees, it’s because you don’t recognize that the trees blocking the view are the woods; if you cannot see the forest for the trees, perhaps it’s because there is a woods blocking your view of the forest. Not recognizing that the trees are the woods conveys the sense of cluelessness; not being able to sdee the forest for the trees simply means one hasn’t a good vantrage point.
Google ngams show that the number of people who don’t know sic’em about woods and forests corresponds to the urbanization of the population.
A forest isn’t a container. It doesn’t have trees in it. It is composed of trees. Just like you don’t have a dozen eggs after you’ve cooked 9 of them. The dozen is the eggs, not the box.
So I’d argue that the proper phrase is can’t see the woods for the trees – but in so far as the language is owned by those who (mis)speak it, I’ll have to concede that the forms using forest are both acceptable; people grok what you’re saying without having to pause and study on it.