Attain is a verb that means to accomplish, reach, or achieve something through effort. You can attain a goal that you set for yourself or attain a high-ranking position at your job.
● After six months, I attained my goal of losing 15 pounds。
● Joe worked so hard he attained the position of Vice President.
As you can see, attain clearly has to do with the effort and labor that is put into an objective.
Obtain is also a verb, but it means to get, to acquire, or to gain possession of something.
● I obtained the latest copy of The Wall Street Journal.
● The robbers obtained weapons to commit the crime.
● Police obtained a warrant to search the house.
While attain implies there was some effort put forth to produce an outcome, that is not necessarily the case with obtain. Take our example above, and suppose you obtained the latest Wall Street Journal. You could have found it on the side of the street or picked up a free copy at a local diner. There is nothing about obtain that implies a level of difficulty.
There is, however, a fine line between these two words, especially when you attain something that is, itself, closely related to the item that is being obtained。
● In college you work hard to attain a degree.
● Once you graduate you will obtain your diploma.
This is a very subtle difference, but it is important to recognize it. In this example you are working hard to attain your academic degree, a B.A., B.S., M.A., Ph.D., etc., but you physically obtain and take ownership of the piece of paper that is your diploma once you graduate.
Similarly, many countries are working to attain nuclear technology, but the nuclear weapons themselves can only be obtained.
A good way to keep these two words a part from each other is to remember that “to attain something” is to achieve or accomplish something. Achieve and Accomplish both start with A’s and both involve working to see a goal fulfilled.