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I'm looking for an idiom which describes a situation whereby superfluous things detract from other more important/prominent things.

The way I want to use it is like this:

In practical terms, such details are superfluous to the overall schema and vision of the narrative because they distract our attention away from the most important ones.

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It's not an idiom, but irrelevant sounds relevant to your situation. –  zpletan Apr 17 '12 at 21:16

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

We used to refer to such a thing as a red herring.

However, that was before red herring prospectus was coined.
Today, most may be unaware of the original idiom.

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I think this is probably the closest it gets –  hohner Apr 21 '12 at 11:09

Can't see the forest through the trees is one possibility. One dictionary defines the idiom as an expression used of someone who is too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole. The forest refers to the "more important thing," and the trees are the less significant details that get in the way. This idiom indeed "describes a situation whereby superfluous things detract from other more important/prominent things," but I think you might have trouble working it into your context.

Another related idiom is don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. This is used when someone is rejecting an overall good idea because of one unappealing detail. The baby is the "more important thing," while the bathwater represents the less significant details. However, this idiom usually works only when an idea is being rejected, so it may not be a good fit for your specific question.

Although a bit bland, you might also consider, "We need to focus on the big picture," rather than the "petty details," and avoid "getting lost in the weeds" or "drowning in the details." (These expressions need to be combined, though, to get the full meaning of what you're trying to convey.)

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Maybe you could say you can't see the forest for the trees, or you can't see the wood for the trees. Explained here.

It means you are focusing on the details at the expense of the bigger picture. Your focus on the individual trees is getting in the way of the entire picture of the forest.

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There is a line from a song by the band Cake that goes something like

The ornaments look pretty, but they're pulling down the branches of the tree

While it may not be a widely used idiom outside of that lyric, I believe that the meaning is clear enough that you could say it in context with no other explanation needed.

It may also be possible to use red herring:

A clue or piece of information which is or is intended to be misleading, or is a distraction from the real question.

Specifically, in the sense of a piece of information which is misleading, or is a distraction from the real question. You may want to avoid this, though, because even though the definition does not require it, there may be a connotation of intent.

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