'Attain' vs 'Obtain': What's the Difference?

By Katie Moore, updated on July 14, 2023

‘Attain’ vs ‘Obtain’: What’s the Difference? Here we have two words that might be easily confused due to the fact that they rhyme and have the same ending. But what do they each mean, and how can we tell them apart?

In a hurry? Here’s a short preview of what’s to come:

  • ‘Attain’ is a verb meaning to achieve something. 
  • ‘Obtain’ is a verb meaning to get something. 

What’s the Difference Between ‘Attain’ vs ‘Obtain’?

The frustrating thing about these two new words is that they sound similar, and their meanings are similar too. But they are just different enough that we’ve come up with some hints to help you separate them. 

While both are verbs, ‘Attain’ has more to do with the intangible. Meanwhile, ‘Obtain’ has more to do with physical objects. 

  • For example, you might ‘Attain’ a goal (something you have set for yourself in your mind)
  • While you ‘Obtain’ a new coin for your collection (something physical you get). 

Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is a way to approach these words to help distinguish between them. 

Perhaps though, the best way to tell the difference between the two is to learn more about their meanings. While these words are occasionally viewed as being synonyms of each other, they have their own meanings and are closely related to a whole bunch of other words. Let’s dive deeper into the definitions and uses of ‘Attain’ vs ‘Obtain.’ 

Definition of ‘Attain’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Languages, ‘Attain’ is a verb that means: 

  • Succeed in achieving (something that one desires and has worked for)
    • “clarify your objectives and ways of attaining them.”
  • To reach (a specified age, size, goal, or amount)
    • “dolphins can attain remarkable speeds underwater.”

‘Attain’ comes from the Latin rootattingere,’ which means “to touch,” which then evolved into the Middle English ‘attain,’ which was synonymous with “bring to justice." In essence, the word has a history of signifying accomplishment and achievement. 

Synonyms of ‘Attain’

  • Complete
  • Earn
  • Gain
  • Reach
  • Realize
  • Reap
  • Secure
  • Fulfill
  • Procure

Antonyms of ‘Attain’

  • Fail
  • Forfeit
  • Give up
  • Lose
  • Surrender
  • Yield
  • Miss

Phrases with ‘Attain’

  • Attain a goal
  • Unattainable
  • Attain enlightenment

Definition of ‘Obtain’: What Does it Mean?

According to Oxford Language, ‘Obtain’ is a verb that means: 

  • Get, acquire, or secure something
    • “an opportunity to obtain advanced degrees”
  • Be prevalent, customary, or established
    • “the price of silver fell to that obtained elsewhere in the ancient world.”

The word ‘Obtain’ also stems from Latin but had an almost entirely direct and unchanged line of translation. The word stems from the Latin ‘obtinere,’ which meant “gain,” and we still see overlap in other languages today, like the Spanish ‘obtener’ which means to “have” or “acquire.”

Synonyms of ‘Obtain’

  • Access
  • Achieve
  • Collect
  • Glean
  • Reap
  • Accomplish
  • Have
  • Secure

Antonyms of ‘Obtain’

  • Disperse
  • Distribute
  • Give up
  • Release
  • Scatter
  • Lose
  • Free (as a verb)

Phrases with ‘Obtain’

  • Obtain evidence
  • Obtain supplies
  • Be Obtained
  • Obtain it

Pronunciations: How to Pronounce ‘Attain’ vs ‘Obtain’

Knowing the difference between the meaning of words is only half the battle, especially since there is so much more to vocabulary than writing. Knowing the correct pronunciation of each new word is just as important and will also help keep them more distinguished in your brain since they do sound so similar. Below you’ll find our pronunciation key. 

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Attain’ as a guide:

  • ‘Uh-tayn’ (with the first “a” pronounced more like the “u” in ‘yummy’)

Use this phonetic spelling of ‘Obtain’ as a guide: 

  • ‘uhB-tayn’ (with the “o” also pronounced more like the “u” in ‘yummy)

Note that you may hear some people pronounce a longer “O” sound, but it is not as common. 

How to Use ‘Attain’ vs ‘Obtain’ in a Sentence

Sometimes the best way to learn is by example. Seeing new words in action can help identify all the ways they can be used and give you an idea beyond just the definitions of how a word appears in the real world. Let’s take a look at some example sentences to help clear up the difference between these two synonyms. 

‘Attain’ Example Sentences

  • She made a detailed schedule and broke down her goals into multiple steps to make them more attainable
  • He thought he attained the highest grade in the class, but his best friend scored better than he did. 
  • Formula One drivers attain crazy high speeds while racing on complex race courses. 
  • The fashion industry’s excessive use of Photoshop has given young people an unattainable sense of what it means to be beautiful. 

‘Obtain’ Example Sentences

  • After attending an undergraduate program, he decided to go to grad school to obtain his master’s degree. 
  • The evidence she obtained meant the difference between proving the client innocent versus guilty. 
  • The makeup product she wanted for her birthday was unobtainable because it had sold out. 
  • The lawyers obtained a copy of a video that identified all three of the suspects on the scene. 

Final Advice on ‘Attain’ vs ‘Obtain’

Sometimes the hardest words to learn are those that are connected to each other, much like ‘Attain’ vs ‘Obtain’ given that they are sometimes viewed as synonyms and also rhyme with each other. But learning the difference between the two is also the key to unlocking a whole variety of words that help expand your vocabulary. While learning synonyms can be frustrating, it is also incredibly powerful. 

Need a review? Here is a short recap of what this article covered:

  • While sometimes viewed as synonyms of each other, ‘Attain’ is a verb meaning to achieve something successfully,
  • Meanwhile, ‘Obtain’ is a verb that means to acquire or secure something. 
  • Note that ‘Attain’ often refers to intangible things while ‘Obtain’ usually involves a physical thing. 

Learning new vocabulary can be tricky, but it is certainly worth it, given how much it helps improve writing and linguistic understanding. Be sure to check out other confusing word articles to help parse through other similar words and keep expanding your knowledge of English.

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Written By:
Katie Moore
Katie is a recent graduate of Occidental College where she worked as a writer and editor for the school paper while studying linguistics and journalism. She loves helping others find their voice in writing and making their work the strongest it can be. Katie also loves learning and speaking other languages and wants to help make writing accessible for everyone.

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