The verbs WIN, EARN, and GAIN are often confused by English learners, and for good reason: they have very similar meanings! They are also incredibly important words for Business English, and CISL teachers are often asked to clarify the words and their meanings. To test your knowledge of the differences between these words, take a look at the question below. Can you match each word with its correct definitions?

a. to obtain money in return for labor or services
b. to receive respect or recognition for behavior or services
c. to obtain or secure something wanted or desirable
d. to be successful or victorious



Earn: a and b
Win: d
Gain: c

Now, take a look at the definitions (and common expressions) of each word.


The word win means “to be successful or victorious.” In general, it is used for competitions: we use WIN when talking about sports, political campaigns, games, or contests like lotteries. You win a MATCH, you win a GAME, you win a RACE, you win an ELECTION, and you win the LOTTERY.


The word “gain” means “to obtain or secure something wanted or desirable.” It is often used with things that we cannot touch: for example, you can gain SPEED, you can gain MOMENTUM, and you can also gain WEIGHT.

Gain is also often used with nouns that reference entry; for example, you can gain ACCESS, gain ADMISSION, or gain ENTRY into a building or event. Additionally, we use gain with EXPERIENCE.


The word “earn” means “to obtain money in return for labor or services” or “to receive respect or recognition for behavior or services.” We often use earn with money: you earn a SALARY or earn MONEY or earn a LIVING.

Expressions with “earn”

Earn is also used with several expressions with money. Have you heard these expressions?

To earn your keep

Definition: to help out with chores in return for food and a place to live; to earn one’s pay by doing what is expected.

Example: When I was an au pair, I earned my keep by picking the children up from school and helping them with their homework.

To earn your stripes

Definition:  to get a position through hard work and accumulated experience. This expression alludes to a military promotion or award, indicated by strips of chevron or braid added to the recipient’s uniform and known as stripes since the early 1800s.

Example: I earned my strips by working as a Personal Assistant for many years.

A penny saved is a penny earned

Definition: a proverb meaning that the money you save is more valuable than money that you spend right away; it is good to save money.

Example: I use coupons when I go grocery shopping. A penny saved is a penny earned!

Definition source.