accomplish/ achieve/ attain

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Macunaíma, May 26, 2007.

  1. Macunaíma

    Macunaíma Senior Member

    Um ninho de mafagalfinhos
    português, Brasil
    I know that answering this sort of question is rather wearying for native speakers, especially when no context is provided, but I feel like I'll never get to understand the difference in meaning between these verbs without this kind of help.

    I have tried reading the entries for these words in different monolingual dictionaries, in bilingual dictionaries, memorizing collocations, everything in order to know how they differ in meaning and when to use one rather than the others, but I keep getting them wrong and getting stucked every time I have to choose which to use. The difference between accomplish and achieve is specially troublesome for me. Attain seems to be the odd one out, although I know it has something in common with accomplish and achieve.

    Could you guys please take the time to tell me, in simple terms, what is the difference between these verbs and when I should use which? That would really, really help me and I would appreciate it very much.

    Many thanks in advance

  2. AWordLover

    AWordLover Senior Member

    Atlanta, Georgia USA
    USA English

    While we're waiting for someone to answer you, please provide some sample sentences where you believe you are using the words incorrectly (but don't know why).

    What you ask is not so easy, since in many sentences you could substitue accomplish for achieve. And although I think I know what these words mean, I would need to look them up in a dictionary before I answered you.

    What do you hope to accomplish here?
    What do you hope to achieve here? [not that different from the above]
  3. anhonestfool Member

    USA, Northwest American English
    In so many cases these words can be used interchangeably.
    This is the only distinction that I can think of to make:
    "To accomplish" simply means "to complete", as in "I've accomplished a lot of work today". It suggests that a person has simply completed an action.
    However, "To achieve" and "to attain" at times almost suggest a slight ownership to me, as in
    "He's achieved a high level of knowledge on that subject" or "He's attained a high level of knowledge". (He's gotten a high level of knowledge)

    Does this make any sense at all?
  4. AWordLover

    AWordLover Senior Member

    Atlanta, Georgia USA
    USA English

    I looked up all three words at, which I like because I gives results from several dictionaries. It was suggested that I additionally look up perform and reach, where I would get a hint on typical usage if I looked in the synonym sections. Here are some hints

    American Heritage Dictionary says

  5. robjh22 Senior Member

    U.S.A. & English
    Try memorizing these phrases:

    I accomplished a lot today. [We would never say "I attained a lot today"]

    I was in the military and attained the rank of captain [never "accomplished"]

    He achieved his objective [same as "reached his objective"] I guess you can say "accomplish the objective," but it's not very idiomatic.

    I think these are the most idiomatic uses of the words.
  6. Macunaíma

    Macunaíma Senior Member

    Um ninho de mafagalfinhos
    português, Brasil
    Thanks Wordlover, HonestFool and RobJH for addressing my question. I know it was pretty open and vague and the kind of question which can’t make sense to native speakers, so I appreciate your effort.

    It would be all but impossible for me to explain what my doubt is without resorting to translations to Portuguese, and that would be no good if you don’t speak Portuguese, besides being forbidden in an English-only forum.

    HonestFool’s definition of accomplish as to complete is consistent with the definition I used to stick to, although it didn’t always make sense when I tried to use it in that way. I think of achieve as to reach, as in achieve a goal, but although I achieve a goal, I fulfil a dream (more confusing words keep coming to my mind). The only collocations I can think of with attain is attain+speed and attain+age. I realize that this thread is bound to lose its focus, if it has any (my question didn’t exactly provide one).

    I think the best for me is to keep writing down every sentence which I come across that has these words, so as to assimilate their meaning by learning collocations where they appear, as Rob suggests and I have been doing already. Moreover, it’s common for words to overlap in their meanings, as is the case with accomplish and achieve and achieve & attain. Maybe the trick is to try and work out the differences by myself, from context, without dictionaries.

    Thank you very much guys for your input.

  7. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    These three verbs have different emphasis, which I will indicate by underlining:

    Attain suggests pride in reaching a goal after a concerted effort.

    Achieve suggests initiative and skill were used to reach a goal.

    Accomplish emphasizes the successful completion of a task.

    There is obviously overlap, but when the senses differ, this tells what the difference will likely be.
  8. _Yanni_ Member

    I agree 100% with you. Here are examples for each of the three words:

    True happiness can therefore be attained only through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

    Beginning with simple descriptions of particular things, we can eventually assemble our information in order to achieve a comprehensive view of the world.

    Most particularly, he pointed out that performative utterances such as promising, pledging, or vowing accomplish
    their purposes without implying any referential representation of reality.


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