Make Your Editor Cry: Attain vs. Obtain

Make Your Editor Cry:  Attain vs. Obtain

“Attain” means “to reach,” and “obtain” means “to gain.”

“Attain” is a transitive verb that means “to reach,” as an end or “to come to,” as the end of a progression or course of movement. “Obtain” as a transitive verb means “to gain,”  or “to get,” or “to attain,” usually by planned action or effort.

NOTE: “Obtain” also means to be generally recognized or established as an intransitive verb, which is not the meaning I am talking about in this article.

Think of it this way. If you run a foot race and win, you “attain” the victory when you cross the finish line. Then you “obtain” a trophy as a result. So you “reach” for the victory but you “get” a trophy.


She refused to let the injury keep her from attaining her goal of being in the Olympics.
This kind of tree can attain a height of 20 feet within just a few years.
We obtained a copy of the original letter.
A bid to obtain the full minutes of the meeting under the Freedom of Information Act was denied.

As the definition of “obtain” makes clear, some things that you “obtain” can also be “attained.”

To obtain a license, the club must meet or attain certain stadium, infrastructure, and finance requirements.

You can “attain” status. You can “obtain” wealth. You “attain” a college education but “obtain” a diploma. “Attain” usually implies a required amount of labor or difficulty; nothing is necessarily implied about the difficulty of “obtaining” that diploma. Maybe you just “obtained” it for $20.00 on the web or something. Or maybe you “obtained” it by the difficult act of “attaining” a valid education y continuously reaching for your goal.

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