I looked online for the meaning of the expression "Can't see the wood for the trees"; see for example, this. It means getting so much involved in the details of something such that you can not see the whole picture/view of it.

I am wondering why? How does the connection between wood and tree imply this?

PS: In a similar expression "can't see the forest for the tree" with the same meaning, it makes sense to say looking very closely to trees prevents somebody seeing the whole forest. In other words, looking closely to the trees is the reason ("for" word in the idiom) that somebody might not be able to see the whole forest. But I can not see such a connection between wood and tree in the expression "Can't see the wood for the trees"!

  • 6
    I have never heard (AmE) wood used to mean a group of trees. Only woods, so to me it might be "Can't see the woods for the trees. But use of forest is far more common here.
    – user3169
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 17:31
  • It seems woods would be correct; nevertheless this link consider the expression to be used by "wood" not "woods"!
    – qartal
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 18:30
  • Other references seem to indicate it is a BrE usage.
    – user3169
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 18:42
  • @user3169: You're right. It IS a British usage. You can find it in OALD: "not see the WOOD for the trees".
    – M.N
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 19:40
  • "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..." Though this line may be an artistic choice and does well to set up a rhyme in Frost's poem The Road Not Taken, it is still a prominent example of an American using wood instead of woods or forest. Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 22:40

4 Answers 4


Wood has two meanings. The first, and most common, is the material which makes up the trunk and branches of a tree. The second is

an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees. "a thick hedge divided the wood from the field"

Or, if you will, a mini-forest.

And it is this meaning that is being used, exactly as in the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees."

And before you ask, no, I don't know exactly how small a forest has to get before it becomes a wood. It might make a good question.

ETA - and yes, before anyone else points it out, there is a third meaning involving slang for a particular sexual state in men, but we don't need to pull that into the discussion.

  • English has many pairs of words that mean almost the same thing; in each pair, one is from Old English and the other is from Norman French. I cannot get at the OED right now, but I'd bet that wood and forest are such a pair. Often there's a slight distinction in meaning in modern usage (such as a wood being smaller than a forest) but that distinction didn't exist in the older language. So in older documents, you'll see wood used the way forest would be now.
    – zwol
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 20:09
  • @zwol Yes, wood is Germanic (and presumably related to the modern German wald = forest); forest is derived from Latin (and related to the modern French forêt). Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 1:23
  • This page is a very cogent discussion of the AmE/BrE usage split. Not just about the trivial forest/wood preference, but also the (to me, much more interesting) difference between the wood and the woods (the latter being the only one you might go down to today if you want in on The Teddy Bears' Picnic! :) Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 3:16

It might be interesting to know that the saying in discussion is also very common in German

-Er sieht den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht- word for word:

"He sees the wood for all the trees + not" (no correct English).

Said if someone sees only the details but not the whole of something. The German dictionary DWDS explains: He sees only unimportant details but not the most important thing. No information about the origin in the etymological part of this dictionary.


The origin is actually from a place called Bath, in England. It refers to a concourse of houses that were designed by the architect John Wood. There was a tree planted directly in front of these houses, and it grew quite large. So people began to exclaim: "You can't see the Wood for the tree!"

Probably not helping the question but that is the original (and non metaphorical) origin of the saying.

  • 4
    I wouldn't send a knight out on a shaggy dog like that.
    – user8399
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 3:24
  • Source? The Wood buildings shown on Wikipedia all look much too large to be obscured by a tree.
    – Adam
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 15:44
  • Sounds highly dubious. Need a source.
    – Matthias
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 21:46

I personally prefer "forest for the trees" because it avoids ambiguity especially for non-native English speakers.

On the other hand, "cannot see the wood for the trees" could be interpreted as being unable to see the finer detail beyond a view of the trees.

I had thought that a better alternative way of saying it is "cannot see the woods for the trees" - i.e. "woods" with a "s" as in "a walk in the woods" but then a "wood" also means a "forest" in English.

  • This all makes sense but it doesn't actually answer the question. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 12:12

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