Attain vs. obtain?

Attain and obtain are formal verbs with subtle differences. Attain means ‘to achieve’ or ‘to accomplish.’ Obtain means ‘to get, acquire, or be prevalent.’

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What is the difference between attain and obtain?

There are several reasons why English grammar students struggle with “attain” and “obtain.” To start, dictionaries often use “attain” as the definition of “obtain” and vice versa. For instance, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines obtain as “to gain or attain usually by planned action or effort.” 

While this definition is not inaccurate, it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) makes a simplified distinction between either formal verb: 

  • To attain is to ‘achieve’ or ‘accomplish.’ 
  • To obtain is to ‘get,’ ‘acquire,’ or ‘be prevalent.’ 

Another point of confusion is that “attain” also means ‘to reach a certain age or quantity,’ which is similar to “obtain.” However, using these verbs interchangeably can cause embarrassing mistakes–– or what is often called “malapropisms.”

As explained by GMEU, malapropisms occur between words that ‘sound similar to an intended word but are hilariously inaccurate in context.’ GMEU provides an example from an American lawyer who wrote:

 “The same exception… applies if U.S. residency or citizenship is renounced before obtaining age 18” (Garner 81–82).  

English speakers may not recognize the flaw in word choice, but the correct term should have been “attaining.” Why? Because nobody can “get” or “acquire” the ‘age of 18’ (that would be very strange). An individual can only “reach” the age of 18. 

An additional point of confusion between obtain and attain involves similar pronunciations, which is mostly thanks to the shared French and Latin suffix “-tain” for ‘to hold.’ But despite their commonalities, you can rest assured these verbs have different meanings, and we should avoid using them interchangeably.

What does attain mean?

The word attain is a verb that means ‘to achieve or gain an objective that one worked for,’ ‘to prevail,’ or ‘to reach or arrive at a certain age, size, or quantity.’ Word derivatives of “attain” include the noun “attainability” and the adjective “attainable.” 

Sentence examples: 

  • “With enough hard work, you can attain any goal.” 
  • “Students attained an understanding of nuclear technology.”
  • “The nuclear weapons department will attain a budget of $72.9 billion.” 

Synonyms

Accomplish, achieve, acquire, approach, earn, gain, procure, rackup, score, win. 

Antonyms

Fall short of, forfeit, give up, lose, miss, relinquish, surrender, yield. 

Etymology of attain

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the verb “attain” derives from Middle English atteinen, which initially meant ‘to bring to justice’ and ‘to reach a state.’ Before Middle English, the verb originated from Old French ateindre via Vulgar Latin attangere and Latin attingere (“ad-” for ‘at, to’ + tangere ‘to touch’).  (“Attain” 103). 

What does obtain mean?

The word obtain is a verb that means ‘to get, acquire, or secure something as a result of planning’ or ‘to be in effect, customary, or established.’ Derivatives of “obtain” include the adjective “obtainable” and the nouns “obtainer” and “obtainment.” 

Sentence examples: 

  • “We obtained evidence of corporate fraud.” 
  • “The document took a good amount of effort to obtain.” 
  • “They are in the process of obtaining a warrant.” 
  • “The practice of critical thinking obtains in the study of philosophy.”

Synonyms

Acquire, capture, earn, gain, garner, get, procure, realize, reap, secure, win. 

Antonyms

Forfeit, give up, lose, surrender. 

Etymology of obtain

The verb obtain entered the English language in late Middle English from Old French obtenir via Latin obtinēre for ‘to gain’ (“Obtain” 1212). 

How to use attain vs. obtain in a sentence?

Like most verbs, we can use attain and obtain as an intransitive or transitive verb. A transitive verb pairs with a sentence subject (such as a noun or pronoun), while an intransitive verb can stand on its own. For example, 

  • Transitive: “We hope our students set out to attain their goals.” 
  • Intransitive: “Inspired by member stories, they attain to a better understanding of a higher power.” 
  • Transitive: “We obtained the kitten from someone in Washington.” 
  • Intransitive: “Your establishment’s rules will not be obtained in the court of law.” 

Notice how the definitions change with the verb form? That’s because “obtain” and “attain” carry different meanings for their intransitive forms: 

  • The intransitive form of obtain means ‘to prevail.’ 
  • The intransitive form of attain means ‘to arrive or reach through effort or growth.’

Additional sentence examples for obtain

  • “Beam paid bribes to Indian officials, including to obtain business in India, from the time it acquired its India business…” –– The Wall Street Journal
  • “inform them to stop or legal proceedings will commence, and an injunction will be obtained.” –– Refinery 29
  • “Several people in Metro Detroit have been charged in recent months…  who prosecutors say schemed to obtain almost $600,000…” –– The Detroit News

Additional sentence examples for attain

  • “… leaders are trying to reverse the trend toward encouraging students to attain the highest degree possible.” –– The Texas Tribune
  • “This must mean that for the young Marcel, it seemed easier to attain to art than to society.” –– The New York Times
  • “Practicing self-care is one way for teens experiencing mild anxiety or depression to attain or maintain mental well-being.” –– The Oregonian

Further reading

If you enjoy learning about English grammar, check out The Word Counter’s related content, such as: 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between attain and obtain with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: The verbs “attain” and “obtain” share the same origins. 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The transitive form of “attain” means ______________. 
    a. To achieve
    b. To prevail 
    c. To arrive by effort
    d. To arrive by growth
  3. The intransitive form of “obtain” means ______________.
    a. To arrive by motion
    b. To acquire possession 
    c. To prevail
    d. B and C
  4. The verb “attain” does not apply to which definition? 
    a. To achieve
    b. To reach
    c. To accomplish
    d. A and C
  5. Which definition does not apply to the verb “obtain”? 
    a. To get
    b. To acquire
    c. To be prevalent
    d. None of the above

Answers

  1. B
  2. A
  3. C
  4. B
  5. D

Sources

  1. Attain.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020.
  2. Attain.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  3. “Attain.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 103.  
  4. Chaffin, C. “Tips to maintain or attain mental wellness, from teens who practice them.” The Oregonian, 8 Sept 2019. 
  5. Garner, B. “Attain; obtain.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 81–82. 
  6. Hamilton, R. “Texas Colleges Adjust Due to Labor Market Needs.” The Texas Tribune, 13 Jan 2012. 
  7. Malapropism.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  8. Obtain.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., 
  9. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020.
  10. “Obtain.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 1212.
  11. Obtain.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  12. One Way Led to Society—The Other, and More Difficult, to Art.” The New York Times, The New York Times Archives, 19 July 1964. 
  13. Selby, J. “What Exactly Constitutes Harassment On Instagram?Refinery 29, Vice Media Group, 24 Feb 2020. 
  14. Snell, R. “Feds say COVID-19 fraudsters bragged about big-ticket items on Instagram.” The Detroit News, 27 Oct 2020. 
  15. Tokar, D. “Beam Suntory to Pay $19 Million to Settle Bribery Probe.” The Wall Street Journal, 27 Oct 2020. “What are transitive and intransitive verbs?.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.