How did this phrase originate grammatically? I’m especially interested in the fragment “for the trees”.

See http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/see_the_forest_for_the_trees for its definition.

2 Answers 2


In English, this saying goes back at least to the 16th century:

1546 J. HEYWOOD Prov. II. iv. (1867) 51 Plentie is nodeintie, ye see not your owne ease. I see, ye can not see the wood for trees.Oxford English Dictionary

This is for in the sense of “on account of”, “because of”, which goes back as far as Old English. (“for”, Online Etymology Dictionary)

You can read the saying as:

Cannot see the forest because of the trees.

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    oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/for?q=for Sense 5 "Having [the thing mentioned] as a reason or cause". Bear in mind that this is an idiomatic expression at least 450 years old.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 7:32
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    @MarkBeadles Lol -- it's not that people are not familiar (one must avoid making this error of judgment) -- transparency is subjective.
    – Kris
    Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 12:42
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    @Kris Do you mean you are skeptical that "for" can ever be interpreted as "on account of/because of", or just in the OP's phrase? If the latter, what do you think the phrase means?
    – MetaEd
    Commented Oct 3, 2012 at 13:50
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    @HikeDanakian I simply mean that "cannot see the forest on account of the trees" (my natural reading of the phrase) is the meaning that to me is obvious and can be derived directly from the meaning of its constituent parts. I realize that transparency is a personal thing. It seems evident from this discussion that some people regard the phrase as truly idiomatic, with a "frozen" meaning that is no longer clear from looking at its parts. My statement above was that I was surprised (genuinely, not rhetorically) that this is the case. Commented Oct 6, 2012 at 2:39
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    @Kris The usage isn't confined to this phrase. We still fine and imprison people for their offenses, we still do other things for various reasons, and after all that we still can't win for losing. Commented Oct 7, 2012 at 2:43

This idiom is ambiguous for the "for"... (cough cough)

If "for" means "because of", then the trees, aka details, ironically muddle the overall picture of the forest, aka the main idea.

However, if for means "in place of; instead of", then it's similar to the idiom "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." So, you can't see the forest on behalf of the trees.

In other words, you can't comprehend a problem on behalf of the ones who are part of that problem.

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