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I came across a headline of the article of today’s New York Times (Feb.22) giving tips for selling a second-hand apartment, that says

To sell an apartment, no detail is too small

I think ‘‘No detail is too small’ means ‘you cannot be more attentive to the details of things to do it better.’ The phrase reminds me of the old cliché, ‘The God resides in details’ used in secular sense. But ‘No detail is too small’ sounds novel to me. Is ‘No detail is too small’ a common English phrase?

The headline is followed by the following sentence:

Jamella Swift, a Citi Habitats broker, was trying to anticipate every detail that would prevent a potential buyer from purchasing the two-bedroom condo she was selling in Brooklyn. She put a full-size bed in the bedroom so buyers wouldn’t think the room was too small. She dragged in a Lucite coffee table to create the illusion of a larger living space and set up three floor lamps to supplement the recessed lighting. Ms. Swift hoped that the $5,000 she had spent would help her land $395,000 to $425,000 for the apartment.

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4 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Here is a Google Ngram graph comparing incidences of the phrases “no detail too small”, “no detail is too small”, “no job too small”, “no job is too small” since 1840. It appears that the original phrase is in fact “no detail too small”, with incidences appearing as early as 1841.

Google ngram graph

As you can see from the graph, the phrase had a peak usage in the early part of the 20th century, depending on the exact formulation, but dropped in favor dramatically until about 1980, since when it has steadily been increasing in usage.

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Nohat. This is a strikingly interesting chart for me. It gives clear understanding of quantitative word / phrase usage trendsat a glance. I was really inpressed. Thank you. –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 22 '11 at 6:09
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It's definitely been used before, but I wouldn't exactly call it a cliché.

Here's a reference to it from Language Log:

John V. Burke wrote to draw my attention to a phrase in Walter Kaiser's "Saving the Magic City", NYRB, 12/3/2009 (emphasis added):

Roeck's book, for which he has done an impressive amount of research, tries to be a number of things at once: it is an account of the social and intellectual world of the expatriate community in fin-de-siècle Florence; it continues the biography of Aby Warburg he began with his earlier book; it is a history of late-nineteenth-century Florentine urban development; it is a cultural history; it addresses a wide variety of ancillary topics such as anti-Semitism, anarchism, labor conditions, and economic trends; and it discusses the various aesthetic theories being formulated at the turn of the century. No detail is too small to escape Roeck's net, not even the plans formed in 1898 to produce artificial ice commercially in Florence.

This echoes the classic example "No head injury is too trivial to ignore", discussed by Peter Wason and Shuli Reich, "A Verbal Illusion", The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31(4):591-97, 1979.

It is familiar enough to be well understood, but hardly rises to the level of overuse one expects from a cliché.

By the way, Oishi-san, I usually hear the other phrase you mentioned rendered as "The Devil is in the details" — a diametrically opposite perspective, but the same basic meaning. :)

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Robusto-san. We quote 'The God resides in the details' pretty often in our conversation without knowing its origin. But I heard 'The Devil is in the details' as a counterpart expression for the first time. It's interesting. –  Yoichi Oishi Feb 22 '11 at 2:38
    
While it is not strictly a cliche, I do think this particular phrase's usage is usually more figurative than literal, and that reading it the latter way would give an incorrect impression of the level of stringency it implies, most of the time. –  Uticensis Feb 22 '11 at 3:53
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It's a fairly common phrase, and it just means that you have to pay attention to every detail, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

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The original expression was "No job too large, no job too small" (for companies like printers and moving companies that can handle assignment of different sizes). It snowcloned from there.

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