Attain vs. Obtain: What’s The Difference?

dark aqua text "attain vs obtain" on light aqua background

Quick summary

The verb attain most often means “to achieve” (as in She attained her goal) or “to gain through effort” (as in He attained the rank of general). The verb obtain is commonly used as a synonym of get, meaning “to gain possession of” (as in We’re on a quest to obtain the treasure). Attain is usually only used as a synonym of get in the context of acquiring intangible things (as in You can’t expect to attain all the answers immediately).

The verbs attain and obtain are very similar. Sometimes their meanings overlap, but they can also be used in distinct ways.

In this article, we’ll define attain and obtain, explain the different ways they’re used and when their meanings overlap, and provide examples of how they’re typically used in sentences.

When to use attain or obtain

The verbs attain and obtain have distinct meanings, but there are certain situations in which they can be used interchangeably.

Attain is most often used to mean “to achieve something” or “to gain something through strenuous effort.”

For example:

  • Through diet and exercise, Jeff attained his goal of losing 100 pounds
  • I worked very hard to attain an education.

Attain is also used to mean “to reach a point or arrive somewhere,” as in The right to vote extends to those who have attained the age of 18.

Obtain has fewer senses than attain. Most commonly, obtain is used as a synonym of the verb get, meaning “to gain possession of something.” When obtain is used in this way, it often implies that some effort is involved, as in I’ve been searching for a rare book, but I haven’t been able to obtain it.

Obtain is more formal than get. For example, you wouldn’t normally say I need to obtain a pair of socks (in cases like this, it’s much more common to use the words get or buy).

The words attain and obtain may overlap in usage. In particular, they may be able to be used interchangeably when they are used as a synonym of get in the context of acquiring intangible things, especially when it requires effort.

For example:

  • I worked very hard to attain/obtain an education.
  • Her goal is to attain/obtain financial independence.

However, only obtain is usually used as a synonym of get in reference to gaining possession of tangible things. For example, you would say I finally obtained the book (and NOT I finally attained the book).

Both attain and obtain end in -tain, but for different reasons. Attain comes from a combination of the Latin verb tangere (“to touch”) and the prefix at-, a variation of ad- (meaning “toward”). Obtain comes from a combination of the Latin verb tenēre (“to hold”) and the prefix ob- (meaning “toward, to”).

Examples of attain and obtain used in a sentence

Let’s look at some examples of sentences that show how the words attain and obtain are commonly used, including some that show how attain and obtain may be interchangeable.

  • We obtained the book of magic spells from a cranky old wizard.
  • You’ll need to work really hard to attain your goal of becoming a famous musician.
  • She studied for many years to attain/obtain that level of knowledge.
  • The legendary pirate obtained the nickname “Blackbeard” because of his facial hair.
  • Several different athletes have attained/obtained new personal bests during the event.
  • The documentary explains how he was able to attain/obtain his wealth.

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