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Obtain Vs. Attain

Filed on: November 26, 2007 | Written by | 3 comments

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.]

3 Responses to "Obtain Vs. Attain"

Anonymous says:
On January 18th, 2010

Nice copy and paste job Arizona Yoga Training: http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/attain.html

Editage says:
On October 15th, 2009

@Mr. KIng: Attain has a deeper meaning than obtain-it conveys not only possession but also achievement. In the example you cited, either verb would be suitable, depending on what you wish to convey.

Mr. KIng says:
On December 12th, 2008

Great article. I have a question, though, because it seems grammatically correct to say you "attain power", or to say you "obtain power". However, I want the right one. From your article, it seems as though the latter would be the more appropriate choice, but I like the sound of the former.


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