Difference Between Obtain and Attain

Key Difference – Obtain vs. Attain


Obtain and attain are two verbs in the English language that can often be confusing for non-native speakers. Hence first let us focus on the meanings of these two words. To obtain something is to come into possession of something. To attain is to succeed in doing something. The key difference between attain and obtain is that attaining something requires effort; however obtaining something does not always require hard work. Through this article let us examine the differences between these two words.

What Does Obtain Mean?

The word obtain can simply be understood as coming into possession of something. This is mostly used when we acquire something. The word obtain mostly appear in formal writing. Here are some examples.

He obtained all that was required.

They obtained the documents necessary for the coming project.

In the examples above, the verb obtain is used for objects that can be acquired. It can be used to speak of something that is customary or prevalent in a particular situation, place or time.

The values that obtained in the village were quite alienating for the foreigner.

Finally, she came into terms that the laws no longer obtain.

Obtain can also be used to bring out the idea that someone succeeded. It is this meaning that is closest to the word attain, as it also highlights achieving something. However, the important fact to bear in mind is that unlike attaining, obtaining does not require a lot of sacrifices. On the contrary, it emphasizes taking possession of something. For an example, an individual works hard in school towards achieving a scholarship. This is attaining. Obtaining is when the individual takes possession of the scholarship. Here are some examples.

She managed to obtain a position in the inner circle.

He obtained a professorship at the university.

Difference Between Obtain and Attain

She obtained the documents.

What Does Attain Mean?

Attain can be understood as succeeding in doing something. Attaining something requires a lot of hard work. Let us have a look at some examples.

She attained a degree in Philosophy.

They attained the highest ranks of the militia regiment.

Observe the two examples given above. Notice how effort is involved in attaining the necessary goals.

Attain can be used when we want to highlight arriving at something or coming to something. This can be in reference to time, growth or even movement.

After many days of travelling, they finally attained their destination.

By nightfall, he attained the valley.

As you can observe there exists a clear difference between obtain and attain although in some instances the difference can become rather blurred. Here is a summary of the main differences between obtain and attain.

Key Difference - Obtain vs Attain

She attained a degree in Philosophy.

What is the difference between Obtain and Attain?

Definitions of Obtain and Attain:

Obtain: To obtain something is to come into possession of something.

Attain: To attain is to succeed in doing something.

Usage of Obtain and Attain:


Obtain: Effort is not required.

Attain: Attaining something requires tremendous effort.


Obtain: Obtain is a formal word.

Attain: Attain is also a formal word.


Obtain: Obtainable is the adjective of the verb obtain.

Attain: Attainable is the adjective of the verb attain.


Image Courtesy:

1. Entrega de documents By Miquel16 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2. Girl Studying Under a Tree (3638661925) By Tulane Public Relations [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons