Wood for the Trees

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In the U.K., people often speak of losing the big picture because of the details by saying that someone can't see the wood for the trees. Usually in the U.S., we say "forest for the trees". It's long occurred to me that the U.K. way of saying it conveys exactly the opposite here as it does across the pond.

In the U.K., a natural way to refer to a wooded area is to call it "the wood". That means the wood is a level up from the trees in terms of big picture vs. details. But in the U.S. you would never say "the wood" unless you meant the material that makes up the bulk of the tree's matter. To refer to a wooded area, you'd call it "the woods". So when you compare the wood with the trees in the U.S., you're actually talking about the tree and what it's made out of rather than a bunch of trees and the forest they comprise. That means the wood as heard in the U.S. is smaller and more detailed than the trees. The trees are a level up in terms of details vs. big picture.

So if you say someone can't see the wood for the trees, I always do a double-take, because it always sounds to me, at least at the initial hearing, as if you're describing someone who can't see the details because of some rigid big-picture view that they can't get away from. I'm familiar enough with the expression now that I quickly adjust, but it's a very weird phenomenon. This expression first conveys to me the exact opposite of what it means.

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