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Attain vs. Obtain: What’s the Difference?

Language is a vast, intricate world, where words can sometimes be deceiving in their similarity. The confusion between the words “attain” and “obtain” is a common example of this.

Despite their comparable appearance and pronunciation, they convey distinct meanings. Mixing them up might not disrupt everyday conversations, but when precision is required, knowing the difference is essential.

Let’s explore “attain” vs “obtain” in more detail.

Definitions and Differences

Attain: To “attain” something means to achieve or reach it, often after a lot of effort or over a period of time. It’s about accomplishment and the process of getting to a particular goal or status.

  • Example: After rigorous study and research, students attain a master’s degree.

This points to the rigorous academic journey and effort taken to achieve a certain level of education.

Obtain: On the other hand, “obtain” refers to getting or acquiring something, often a physical object or some information. It doesn’t necessarily emphasize the journey or the process; rather, it focuses on the act of possession.

  • Example: Once students complete their course, they obtain a diploma or certificate.

This emphasizes the act of getting a tangible item that signifies their achievement.

In essence, while “attain” captures the journey toward achievement, “obtain” focuses on the act of getting or possessing. In the realm of education, one “attains” a degree due to the effort and journey involved, but they “obtain” the physical diploma representing that achievement.

Examples of Usage

Let’s take a look at some usage examples to illustrate use of these words.

Correct Usage

  • After years of hard work, she finally attained her dream job.
  • Can you help me obtain a copy of that book?
  • Many athletes train rigorously to attain peak physical condition.
  • It’s essential to obtain the right permissions before you begin your research.
  • By practicing daily, he hoped to attain mastery in the guitar.

Incorrect Usage

  • I want to attain a new laptop for my birthday. (Here, the correct word is “obtain” since it’s about acquiring a physical object.)
  • She obtained her doctorate after ten years of study. (The correct word is “attain” because it emphasizes the accomplishment after effort.)

Conclusion and Summary

At a glance, “attain” and “obtain” might seem interchangeable, but understanding their nuanced differences can enhance the clarity of your communication. While “attain” captures the journey and effort leading to a certain achievement, “obtain” is straightforward, focusing on the act of getting or possessing something. By keeping their core meanings in mind, one can prevent mix-ups and use them aptly in different contexts.

Test Your Understanding: Quiz

Choose between “attain” or “obtain” to complete the sentences:

  1. To _________ the highest rank in the game, you must complete all challenges.
  2. It’s not easy to _________ tickets for the sold-out concert.
  3. His ambition was to _________ a position of leadership in the company.
  4. You need to _________ permission from the principal to organize the event in the school’s auditorium.
  5. She worked diligently to _________ proficiency in three languages.


  1. attain
  2. obtain
  3. attain
  4. obtain
  5. attain

How did you fare? With a grasp of these differences, you’re now better equipped to navigate the nuances of language and communicate more clearly.

Check out our articles on other examples of similar words: Nonetheless vs Nevertheless, Mistrustful vs Distrustful

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By Lyna Nguyen

Lyna has 15 years of experience working in the financial services industry. She has deep experience producing a wide range of business communications, including research reports, business plans, training presentations, memos, and investor communications.

Lyna's professional experience includes roles at several large financial institutions, including global banks and asset management firms. She has both Master's and Bachelor's degrees in Accounting.