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Feb
06
2019

Grammar and Usage: “attain” vs. “obtain”

Posted in ELL Q&A, Grammar, Writing by Olivia Smialek

D“Obtain” and “attain” have similar pronunciations and meanings, but they do not generally overlap in usage. “Attain” has more the idea of achieving a goal or reaching a level or degree. “Obtain” has more the idea of actually getting something, actually taking possession of it.

Explanation

If we take a look at the words that combine with “attain” and “obtain,” things that are obtained are acquired through a certain amount of effort, such as completing an application, supplying information, seeing and asking the right people, saving up money, using certain techniques or strategies. Things we obtain are things like a passport, a warrant, an authorization, or a permit.

Things that are attained, though, are usually more abstract, like “excellence,” “maturity,” “fame,” and “enlightenment.”

“Degrees” of Similarity

One type of word that can go with either “obtain” or “attain” has to do with an academic degree such as one granted by a university. If we say “attain a master’s degree,” for example, we mean reaching the particular level of a master’s degree. We have reached that level of education as an achieved goal.

If we say “obtain a master’s degree,” the idea is more focused on the getting of the education and the getting of the diploma. The master’s degree is a thing seen as acquired rather than a level that is reached.

Examples

Examining the words that frequently follow “attain” and “obtain” may give you a fuller sense of the difference between these words.

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Until next time, Happy Wordsmything!