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Phrase for focusing on unimportant details

I'm trying to find an idiom about tackling smaller problems instead of tackling their root cause. For example,

  • Instead of plugging the holes in the dam, let's try to divert the river (or build a new dam).
  • Instead of hosing down forest fires let's try to stop the kid playing with the matches.
  • @Jasper Loy: No - the root cause is smoking, which creates and sustains the market for matches (Oh! - and sex, which creates the kids! :) Feb 7, 2012 at 21:02

3 Answers 3


"Treating the symptoms and not the cause" is a common way to express this. (A Google query for that phrase produces a bunch of examples.)


put a Band-Aid on it (instead of fully treating the injury)


There are really two conflated issues here: addressing small problems when you should be aggressively tackling the big problem, and fixing messes caused by failing to address a root problem. (Since the effort to clean up a single such mess can exceed the effort it would take to address the root problem, this cannot be considered as “addressing small problems when you should be aggressively tackling the big problem”.)

The first situation is referred to as “pencil-sharpening”. Here’s an example link:


The second situation could be called “using an ambulance instead of a fence” -from the poem “The Fence or The Ambulance” by Joseph Malines.

Here is the link to the full text of the poem:


By the way, the futile worldwide ESL industry is an example of using an ambulance in response to the language barrier, whereas adopting Esperanto as a common second language for everyone would correspond to using a fence.

  • Hmm. So far as I can make out, after 125 years the total number of Esperanto speakers in the world is still only a couple of million. My guess is increasing world population probably means that over the last few decades they're actually falling in percentage terms. Feb 7, 2012 at 22:31
  • FWIW, doesn't the increasing world population also mean that the percentage of NATIVE English speakers is also falling? In any case, one of the potential uses of Esperanto is in helping people acquire those ethnic languages that interest them. Here is a link, for example, to an Esperanto-language document helping you to learn Russian: eo.wikibooks.org/wiki/Rusa Feb 9, 2012 at 13:40
  • According to Wikipedia, Science Citation Index reported in 1997 that 95% of its articles were written in English, even though only half of them came from authors in English-speaking countries. I'd expect that trend to continue. Piously hoping for a more democratic/logical choice of global language is like wishing we could ditch the QWERTY keyboard layout (originally designed to slow typists down so the levers wouldn't get jammed up). It just ain't gonna happen. Feb 9, 2012 at 13:49
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    I ran what you said there through Google Translate, and it came back with, "It'll never fly, Orville!" Feb 10, 2012 at 13:33
  • Here’s a link to the U.S. Esperanto website, where they are smiling (or, raising their eyebrows) over this exchange: esperanto-usa.org/en/content/… Feb 14, 2012 at 10:42

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