Attain vs. obtain

Attain means (1) to achieve, (2) to accomplish, or (3)  to reach the age of. Obtain means to get. There is sometimes common ground between these verbs, especially when somebody obtains something that is closely related to something that is often attained. For example, nuclear technology is something to be attained, while an actual nuclear weapon can only be obtained.



In fact, we have been able to attain a commendable level of economic success despite failing urban infrastructure and services. [Wall Street Journal]

The FBI director said that sometimes the best opportunity to obtain statements from a suspect is immediately following the arrest. [Christian Science Monitor]

When asked if it is now harder or easier to attain “the American Dream” than it was for their parents’ generation, 60 percent of Xavier’s 1,022 respondents said it’s getting harder. [The Atlantic]

Penn told the Tulsa World the charity allows ranchers to obtain hay and grain at participating feed stores. [The Republic]


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  1. Chase Guymon says:

    In brief, I think the easier explanation is the difference between the physical and metaphysical description of “to get.”

    Attain is “to get” in terms of the untouchable. To attain is to gain something that cannot be touched, smelled, etc.

    Obtain is the opposite. Obtains form of “to get” refers to the physical grabbing or receiving of something, such as a prize, a sandwich, or as said above a nuclear bomb.


    “Hey, Jeff. Would you like to obtain a rock?”
    —“Yes. Yes, I would. Thank you.
    (Gives rock)


    “Hey, Jeff. Do you want to attain the brilliance of Rock!?”
    —“Yeah! Let’s rock!!!”
    (Both jam to rock music – something that he cannot touch, but can effect him on a metaphysical level)

    • Erin Hoppe says:

      You don’t think the attainable is obtainable then. Correct ? Touchable … untouchable. It’s the possessive portion of the words (I think… looking to learn, not judge)
      .Attainable is something you can obtain.

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