Why isn't the phrase "He couldn't see the forest for the trees" not an incorrect use of English?

I am getting stuck here but why is the phrase not "Can't see the forest from the trees" - as in distinguishing the big picture (forest) from the details (trees).

I don't understand the usage of "Forest for the trees" as the idiom states. Seems in error.

  • Welcome. Could it be you are very simply "missing a comma" ?? He couldn't see the forest, for the trees. ("for" means "because of") – Fattie May 5 at 20:43
  • Since this is ELL: You are using a triple negative. I’m sure your question is not what it is intended to be. – gnasher729 May 5 at 20:50
  • It is not "from the trees" because they are not where the viewpoint is. The idiom is similar to "can't see for looking." – Weather Vane May 5 at 21:58

You write that you think the saying means you can't distinguish the big picture from the details.

In fact, the saying means you can't see the big picture (at all) because you're focusing on the details—because you're looking at the trees, you don't have a wider view of the forest as a whole. "For" means "because of" in this usage.

  • Thank you - How does "for" mean "because of"? That isn't the definition of "for" right? For - as being or constituting, used as a function word to indicate purpose, used as a function word to indicate an intended goal. I guess that's where I'm getting thrown off – Sriram Thodla May 5 at 19:56
  • 3
    @Sriram, "for" has many definitions. "Because of" is definition 6 under "Preposition" at wiktionary. – randomhead May 5 at 20:01
  • Ahh.. Thank you. This one was driving me nuts and I'm a native speaker. – Sriram Thodla May 5 at 20:17
  • If you have a Mac or PC open the O.E.D. which is built in, and the mening is right there. – Fattie May 5 at 20:46

No, it is a complete idiom.

The meaning of the idiom is

they get so caught up in small details that they fail to understand the bigger picture.

So that if you use "Can't see the forest from the trees", you are now on the trees(details) so what you are sitting at is details. It does not match the meaning of the idiom.

On thee other hand

Forest for trees.

The larger picture(forest) should be there for details(trees).

  • "from" would be a typo and it is confusing to mention it. – Fattie May 5 at 20:45
  • @Fattie eh? From a typo? I think you need to read the OP's carefully. – Kentaro May 5 at 20:48

In English "for" means "because".

In the current common OED, it is sense 5:

"5 having (the thing mentioned) as a reason or
cause: Aileen is proud of her family for their
support | I could dance and sing for joy."
  • OED, digital version, entry for "for"

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