This is perhaps one of the most common errors we at Cactus come across. People often confuse the two terms and use them in the inappropriate context. Hope the explanation given below clears the air a bit.
The verbs "obtain" and "attain" both mean "to gain or achieve something." However, the verb "obtain" is typically used to denote possession. For example, "Bill tried relentlessly to obtain tickets to the symphony." On the other hand, the verb "attain" is generally used in the context of achieving a state or condition (e.g., After practicing yoga for ten years, Sarah attained a state of calmness and happiness).
Therefore, while "obtain" is used in the context of gaining a physical object, "attain" is used when an abstract quality is achieved.
Incorrect: She has obtained control over her temper.
Correct: She has attained control over her temper.
In the above example, "control over temper" is a condition that is gained and thus corresponds with the word "attain."
[Word/Phrase Choice is a series of posts dedicated to the appropriate and gentlemannerly usage of some of the more peculiar words and phrases in the English language.]
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