Attain and Obtain

Commonly Confused Words

sentence illustrating the difference between obtain and attain

The verb attain means to achieve, accomplish, or succeed in reaching a goal (usually through some effort).

The verb obtain means to acquire or get possession of something. As an intransitive verb, obtain means to be prevalent or established.

Examples

  • "As you begin your college career, you should also be aware of the difference between learning things for a test or to attain a high grade versus mastering content and skills that are essential for you to succeed in life."
    (Jeffrey Kottler, Excelling in College. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • "The most important function of a bibliographic entry is to help the reader obtain a copy of the cited work."
    (Daniel J. Bernstein)
  • "Both his philosophy and his techniques of leadership were products of a different world, of relationships which no longer obtain and expectations which are no longer valid."
    (David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. HarperCollins, 1986)
  • "There can be no assurance that the Company will attain its expected results, successfully integrate and achieve anticipated synergies from any of its acquisitions, obtain acceptable financing, or attain its published guidance metrics . . .."
    (Press release, "DFC Global Corp. Announces Launch of $650 Million Senior Note Private Offering." The Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2013)

Usage Notes

  • "These two--both formal words--are sometimes confused. . . .

    "Occasionally--as a malaproprism--obtain is used for attain. E.g.: 'The same exception . . . applies if U.S. residency or citizenship is renounced before obtaining [read attaining] age 18.'"
    (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • "Attain involves the idea of considerable effort, while obtain does not necessarily imply effort at all."
    (The Century Dictionary)

Practice Exercise

(a) "She selected a pair of patterned silk stockings, which she did not need--at least not for their usual purpose. Still hoping to _____ whatever information she could from the peddler, she sought to buy his goodwill along with the stockings."
(Carrie Bebris, The Intrigue at Highbury, 2010)

(b) "The amount of money you think it might take to _____ your goals can be much more than your goal actually requires."
(Jack Cummings, Real Estate Finance and Investment Manual, 2010)

Answer to Practice Exercise

(a) "She selected a pair of patterned silk stockings, which she did not need--at least not for their usual purpose. Still hoping to obtain whatever information she could from the peddler, she sought to buy his goodwill along with the stockings."
(Carrie Bebris, The Intrigue at Highbury, 2010)

(b) "The amount of money you think it might take to attain your goals can be much more than your goal actually requires."
(Jack Cummings, Real Estate Finance and Investment Manual, 2010)