The Oxbridge Editing Blog 14th September 2009

Attain vs. Obtain

14th September 2009
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These two words are often used incorrectly by the writer. Both can be applied as transitive and intransitive verbs, and although having similar meanings to one another, each has, essentially, a mutually exclusive application. Although both possess the identical suffix ‘tain’, the etymology of the two words is somewhat different, with ‘attain’ being derived from the Latin ‘tangere’ (to touch), and ‘obtain’ from the Latin ‘tenēre’ (to hold).

From their differing etymologies, it can be seen straight away that there is a difference in the meaning of the two words. Essentially, ‘attain’ is applicable when one achieves or reaches a set criteria or goal, whereas ‘obtain’ should be used when you actually acquire something, be it a physical item or a notional characteristic. For example, when you attain a sufficient result in an examination, you will obtain a qualification. This ‘qualification’ can refer to both a certificate (or other signifying item), and the non-physical attribute you achieve.

It is possible, however, to use the word ‘attain’ for the acquisition of a physical item when there was a certain amount of effort put in to obtain it, in order to stress such a fact. For example, one may wish to say they attained a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award when applying for university, so as to stress the efforts undertaken to achieve the award, and that it has not been freely given, but earned. However, this is not merely ‘swapping’ one word for the other, but instead focusing the reader’s attention upon the attainment, as opposed to the obtainment. This is commonly the case when feats such as breaking World Records are reported in the media, too.

When to use attain

“Woman attains summit of Everest.”

They attained excellence within their field.

I hope to attain a high mark in my final exams.

When to use obtain

We’ll be able to get in, so long as Dave obtains the key.

He obtained the money through deceptive means.

It could be possible to obtain immunity from prosecution.

Either Usage Correct

He obtained/attained the Record for World’s Fastest Man.

If all goes well, she will attain/obtain her degree in July.