Using Attain vs Obtain

Instructor: Lindsy Frazer

Dr. Frazer has taught several college level Science courses and has a master's degree in Human Biology and a PhD in Library and Information Science.

The words attain and obtain sound similar and are both verbs. But, don't let these similarities fool you - these words have different meanings. In this lesson, you will learn the differences between attain and obtain and how to use each word correctly.


Imagine climbing for days in the bitter cold to reach the top of Mt. Everest. When you finally reach the highest point, you want to celebrate your victory with the world. But, should you shout 'I attained the summit!' or 'I obtained the summit!' ? This may seem like a silly question after all that climbing, but you wouldn't want your first words at one of the world's highest peaks to be incorrect!

Attain and obtain sound similar because they both end in 'tain'. In addition, both are verbs, or action words. But, don't let these similarities fool you; these words have different meanings, so they are used in different ways. Read on to learn more about these tricky words and to figure out what you should shout the next time you find yourself on Mt. Everest.

Working Hard

Attain means to achieve or accomplish something by putting in effort. Attain is most often used to talk about achieving things that are intangible, like goals or dreams, as opposed to physical (tangible) objects. For example:

  • After exercising every day for two weeks, Jim attained his goal of losing five pounds.

Jim worked hard to lose that weight, so we can say he attained his goal. Also, losing weight is not a physical item that we can pick up at the store - although I bet a lot of people would like that! So, we can say Jim's goal is intangible - not a physical thing.

Attain is all about putting in work and effort. When you attain something, you earn it. The words achieve and attain both start with the letter 'a'. So, it is easy to remember that to attain something you must achieve it through hard work!


Age, Height, Amount

Attain can also be used to talk about reaching an age, height or amount.

  • Oak trees can attain a height of 90 feet.

It takes an oak tree a lifetime of growing to reach that height. So you can think about growing as putting in a lot of effort to attain a height.

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