Two Tricky Word Pairs

wizard su biancoIt’s March, dear readers, and that means the end of winter is nigh! Not that you’d know it if you happened to be outside in Ottawa today, where it is stupidly cold.

In any event, the days are getting longer, the sun is shining, and I can almost imagine sitting in my backyard swing, enjoying the smell of freshly cut grass and neighbourhood barbecues…

So today, I’d like to talk about two pairs of words that sound similar, but have different meanings. The first pair we’re going to look at is attain and obtain.

Attain is a verb that refers to success in achieving or reaching something, usually through hard work or endurance. It comes from the Latin word attingere, meaning to touch.

Obtain is a verb that refers to getting or acquiring something. It comes from the Latin word obtinere, meaning to hold or acquire.

Things you attain are often abstract and intangible, while things you obtain are usually tangible or measurable. For example:

  • While the evil overlord obtained the key to Sandy’s panic room, Sandy attained enlightenment. Boy was he surprised to find the panic room empty!
  • There was nothing Severin Darkplane wanted more than to attain his PhD in the Necrotic Nuances of Necromancy. He would be so happy the day he obtained his diploma.

The second pair of words for today is venal and venial.

Venal is an adjective that describes either a person who is motivated by or open to bribery, or a thing that is for sale. It comes from the Latin word venum, which means for sale.

Venial is an adjective that originally referred to a sin that is not seen as depriving a soul of divine grace. These days, it also refers to something that is excusable or forgivable. It comes from the Latin word venia, meaning forgiveness.

So that one letter makes a big difference in this pair of words. But let’s look at some sample sentences, just to make it crystal clear.

  • Although Marius sometimes ate a villager or two, as Mayor of Transylvania he was nothing like his venal predecessor (who he may or may not have eaten).  
  • While killing was definitely a mortal sin, Stan was pretty sure tricking vampires into drinking hot sauce-laced blood was venial at best.


Image credit: Val Thoermer /


6 thoughts on “Two Tricky Word Pairs

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