Many people mix up the words attain and obtain, since they have similar pronunciations and they’re both verbs that mean “to get something.”
It’s important to remember that, while these two words are closely related, they actually have different meanings.
Attain means “to get an achievement,” while obtain means “to gain possession of something.”
This article will explain the difference between attain vs obtain and help you remember when to use each one.
What’s the Difference Between Attain and Obtain?
Attain means reaching or achieving a goal. If you’ve attained something, it was difficult to acquire, or you had to work hard to accomplish it.
For example, you might say you’ve attained a mountaintop if you’ve worked hard to climb there, or you’ve attained great artistic skill if you’ve practiced painting for many years.
On the other hand, the word obtain means to get possession of something, usually a physical item.
If you’ve obtained something, it means that you’ve acquired it by some means, whether or not you worked hard for it.
For example, you might say that you’ve obtained a new postage stamp for your stamp collection, or that you’ve obtained a passport to go on vacation. If you’re not sure which one to use, ProWritingAid will let you know if you’re using the wrong word and offer suggestions for how to fix it.
One way to remember the difference between the two words is by thinking about the phrases “attain an academic degree” and “obtain an academic degree,” which are two phrases commonly used to talk about completing university.
As a university student you could say you’re attaining a degree because you’re working hard to earn your diploma, or that you’re obtaining a degree because you’ll be getting one at the end of the program.
On the other hand, if you buy your friend’s degree for twenty bucks, it would be incorrect to say that you’ve attained that degree—you can only say you’ve obtained a degree.
Examples of Attain in a Sentence
Let’s look at some examples of attain in a sentence. Notice that the goals being attained in these examples are all portrayed as being difficult to achieve.
“They knew now that if there is one thing one can always yearn for, and sometimes attain, it is human love.”—Albert Camus, The Plague
“Solitude is independence. It had been my wish and with the years I had attained it.”—Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
“I don’t think man was meant to attain happiness so easily. Happiness is like those palaces in fairy tales whose gates are guarded by dragons: we must fight in order to conquer it.”—Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
“If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here—and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement.”—Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
Examples of Obtain in a Sentence
In contrast, here are some examples of obtain in a sentence. Unlike attain, this word can be used to describe things that are hard or easy to get.
“Animals obtain food by force. Man has no claws, no fangs, no horns, no great strength of muscle. He must plant his food or hunt it.”—Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead
“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”—Thomas Paine, The American Crisis
“How good one feels when one is full—how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained.”—Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
“But as a man obtains more power, camouflage becomes less necessary.”—Robert A. Caro, The Passage of Power
Attainable vs Obtainable Examples
The adjectives attainable and obtainable work the same way as their root verbs attain and obtain.
We use the word attainable to describe a goal that can be achieved, and we use the word obtainable to describe a possession that can be acquired.
Here are some examples of attainable and obtainable in a sentence:
“It’s the simple dreams that are often the most painful because they seem so personal, so reasonable, so attainable. You’re always close enough to touch, but never quite close enough to hold and it's enough to break your heart.”—Nicolas Sparks, Three Weeks with My Brother
“What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.”—Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
“To hold our tongues when everyone is gossiping, to smile without hostility at people and institutions, to compensate for the shortage of love in the world with more love in small, private matters; to be more faithful in our work, to show greater patience, to forgo the cheap revenge obtainable from mockery and criticism: all these are things we can do.”—Hermann Hesse
“But the only hats obtainable in Atlanta were crudely made wool hats, and they were tackier than the monkey-hat forage caps.”—Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
Conclusion on Attain vs Obtain
Now you know the difference between obtain and attain.
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