What’s wrong with most synonyms for earning a certification, degree, diploma, or licensure?

In order to minimize confusion, and be properly understood, it’s important to use words and expressions that mean what we say, and avoid ones that don’t.

That being said, there are lots of terms that even native born English speakers misuse, but in the area of higher education various words and expressions that many people use to indicate when a person earns a certification, degree, diploma or licensure are used inappropriately.

In this context, many individuals conflate or fail to distinguish among the words: achieve, acquire, award, complete, obtain, receive, and earn. Although these terms are connected to the situation when a person has completed all the requirements for a credential, and while sounding similar, these words are not really interchangeable.

The tendency to use words other than earn, minimizes the expenditure of personal effort, and sometimes struggle and sacrifice, and subtly prioritizes the earning of a certification, etc. as an economic transaction, rather than a symbol of a person achieving a recognized level of expertise, skills, and professionalism.

Why are each of the synonyms problematic?

To begin with, the word achieve, is most appropriately paired with a rank, and not a certification, etc. as in achieving a rank. For example, we may use this word in the sentence, “John achieved the rank of captain in the Grenadier Guards during the second world war.”

On the other hand, the expression acquire a degree, etc. is a bit of misnomer. The word acquire typically means to pick-up, purchase, or develop as in, “she acquired a taste for designer bags.” Yes in most situations, people pay money to get instruction that may lead to a certification etc., but this would also imply that the more one spends on this category of services, then the better the end product. This, however, is not always the case in certifications etc.

In general, award means, “To grant as merited or due.” This implies the person has done something special. As in awarded a prize. Award also sounds very close to the word reward. The word award does not say anything about effort needed to achieve the degree etc.. And the mere act of going to school, completing a course of studies, passing these classes is tough, as it should be.

The word complete is better, and we can make due with the idea that Jane completed her diploma in finance, but for inexplicable reasons rarely is this expression used. For example, a person completes a course of studies in order to graduate. But this word says nothing of whether the person actually secured the degree, etc.

Moreover, obtain is defined as, “to succeed in gaining possession of as the result of planning or endeavor; acquire.” Pairing obtained with things like degrees reflects a consumerist interpretation of education. Unless degrees or diplomas are being handed out without the necessity of doing any work, then it is best to avoid using this word in an educational context. Also the word “obtain,” does not acknowledge the hard work that the candidate has engaged in through their coursework and studies at an educational institution that if they complete their course work may confer a degree upon them.

The word received is also problematic. You receive a package in the mail. Or the football player received the ball and made a touchdown.

I much prefer the word earn when used in connection with a certification, etc. Earn generally means that the person’s efforts have been scrutinized by individuals designated or capable of making evaluative judgements, or a body designed to monitor the candidates’ progress, and that they have passed some sort of test (or a series of them) rather than simply been given a piece of paper for time in grade or because they have purchased the right to be given a certification etc.

Photo Credit
Photographer: Sergio Rivas
Title: Diplomas!