Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Also: Can’t see the wood for the trees

Imagine you want to learn about the forest; its ecosystem; how it all grows and flourishes. Since the forest is full of huge trees, you spend all your time focusing on them. You can’t see the forest for the trees!

Meaning of Idiom ‘Can’t See the Forest For the Trees’

If you can’t see the forest for the trees, you are too focused on small details or parts and so you are missing something more important; you fail to understand the situation as a whole: You are missing the big picture.

This proverbial idiom can also have a slightly alternative meaning: To be unable to understand a situation clearly because you are too personally involved in it.

In other words, it means to be unable to be objective and dispassionate.

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John has one day to finish his report for college. He spends half the day deciding what kind of bibliography to use.

He can’t see the forest for the trees. He’s too focused on a minor detail when he has very little time to write his report.

Examples Of Use

“They’re asking if we have any suggestions for improvement when the program doesn’t work well at all. They really can’t see the forest for the trees.”

“They are so worried about this one small provision in the bill that they can’t see the forest for the trees. There are not enough votes to pass the bill in the first place!”


This proverb has existed since at least the 1500s, having appeared in John Heywood’s 1546 collection.

Along with its variation, can’t see the wood for the trees, it has been used idiomatically since the early 1800s.

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