Attain vs. Obtain: What’s the Difference?

Attain and obtain are two different words that are often confused with each other by writers but both have their own distinct meanings.

Keeping track of these two words can save you and your writing from looking sloppy, but it can be difficult to remember their difference since they’re both verbs and they both have the same ending “tain.” In this post we’ll outline their differences and give you some tricks to tell attain vs. obtain a part.

When to Use Attain

definition-of-obtaining-attainingAttain is a verb that means to accomplish, reach, or achieve something through effort. You can attain a goal that you set for yourself or attain a high-ranking position at your job. For example,

  • After six months, I attained my goal of losing 15 pounds.
  • Joe worked so hard he attained the position of Vice President.
  • My parents were able to attain the American Dream and so was I.

As you can see, attain clearly has to do with the effort and labor that is put into an objective.

When to Use Obtain

Obtain is also a verb, but it means to get, to acquire, or to gain possession of something. For example,

  • I obtained the latest copy of The Wall Street Journal.
  • The robbers obtained weapons to commit the crime.
  • Police obtained a warrant to search the house.

While attain implies there was some effort put forth to produce an outcome, that is not necessarily the case with obtain. Take our example above, and suppose you obtained the latest Wall Street Journal. You could have found it on the side of the street or picked up a free copy at a local diner. There is nothing about obtain that implies a level of difficulty.

There is, however, a fine line between these two words, especially when you attain something that is, itself, closely related to the item that is being obtained. For example,

  • In college you work hard to attain a degree.

-but-

  • Once you graduate you will obtain your diploma.

This is a very subtle difference, but it is important to recognize it. In this example you are working hard to attain your academic degree, a B.A., B.S., M.A., Ph.D., etc., but you physically obtain and take ownership of the piece of paper that is your diploma once you graduate.

Similarly, many countries are working to attain nuclear technology, but the nuclear weapons themselves can only be obtained.

Practice Quiz and Examples

  1. It took me 50 years to ______ the wisdom I needed.
  2. If you can ______ the tickets, I will go to the game with you.
  3. My grandfather ______ the position of Lieutenant.
  4. He ______ the car through deceptive means.

Display the answers below.

Tricks to Remember

A good way to keep these two words a part from each other is to remember that “to attain something” is to achieve or accomplish something. Achieve and Accomplish both start with A’s and both involve working to see a goal fulfilled.

Summary

To attain something is to reach or achieve a goal.

  • Attain involves work and effort.

To obtain something is to take ownership of it and is unrelated to any level of difficulty.

Answers

  1. Attain
  2. Obtain
  3. Attained
  4. Obtained

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