The difference between 拿 (ná) and 带 (dài) in Chinese grammar

The verbs 拿 (ná) and 带 (dài) can both mean “bring” or “take”, so what is the difference between the two? In short, the difference between 拿 and 带 is:

  • 拿 focuses on the action of carrying or picking up an object, particularly in one’s hands.

  • 带 focuses on bringing or taking things with you, i.e. having something whilst moving.

As with all confusing word pairs, there is a lot of overlap between 拿 and 带. In many cases, native Chinese speakers would be hard pushed to say why you should go with one over the other.

A big rule in developing your Chinese is to avoid spending too much time trying to analyse grammar or rules. Native speakers do not learn in this way. It is good to read up on grammar and get a sense of what is going on, but ultimately you’ve got to develop a natural feel for the language through lots of practice and exposure.

With that in mind, let’s look at 拿 and 带.

Comparing 拿 and 带 directly

The best way to get an idea of the difference between 拿 and 带 is probably to compare them in otherwise identical sentences. First up:

你能带多少行李?

Nǐ néng dài duōshǎo xínglǐ?

How much luggage are you allowed to take?

你能拿多少行李?

Nǐ néng ná duōshǎo xínglǐ?

How much luggage can you carry?

Here you can see that whilst 带 and 拿 can both mean ‘take’, 带 simply expresses the act of moving with an object, whereas 拿 focuses on the physical act of carrying it.

Another example:

我拿了伞。

Wǒ nále sǎn.

I've brought my umbrella.

我带了伞。

Wǒ dàile sǎn.

I've brought my umbrella.

So what about this example? The sentences seem to mean the same thing. They are pretty much the same, except that 拿 draws more attention to the act of picking up the umbrella. Functionally there is very little difference between these two sentences.

请帮我带这个[……]

Qǐng bāng wǒ dài zhège [……]

Please take this [to ...] for me.

请帮我拿这个。

Qǐng bāng wǒ ná zhège.

Please hold this for me.

The difference is clearer in this example. With 带, the sentence is a request for something to be taken to another place. It feels somewhat incomplete without the place being specified. The sentence 带 seems that the listener is going there and the speaker wants them to take something with them. With 拿, the request is simply to hold something without necessarily going anywhere.

Now we’ve looked at some of the direct differences between 拿 and 带, let’s look at them each separately in detail.

拿 (ná)

拿 is used to talk about physically picking things up or carrying them. Notice how it contains 手 (shǒu), the character for hand. When 拿 is used, you should nearly always think of things being moved in someone’s hand/s.

Taking to and from with 拿

Depending on the direction of the action, 拿 is often translated into “bring” or “take” in English. Let’s have a look at “take” first:

你忘了拿你的东西。

Nǐ wàngle ná nǐ de dōngxi.

You forgot to take your things.

请把这个拿走。

Qǐng bǎ zhège ná zǒu.

Please take this away.

他从书架上拿下来了一本书。

Tā cóng shūjià shàng ná xiàláile yī běn shū.

He took a book down from the bookshelf.

你应该拿到前台去吧。

Nǐ yīnggāi ná dào qiántái qù ba.

You should take it to the front desk.

你想拿多少就拿多少。

Nǐ xiǎng ná duōshǎo jiù ná duōshǎo.

Take as many as you like.

If you noticed the 把 character there and are wondering what it does, have a read about the 把 structure. It’s one of the trickiest and most important structures in Chinese grammar.

With these example sentences for 拿, pay attention to how the action focuses on physically moving things around by hand.

Bringing to and from with 拿

You can also use 拿 to talk about bringing things to or from places:

你可以拿点吃的来吗?

Nǐ kěyǐ ná diǎn chī de lái ma?

Could you bring some food?

他从家里拿来了一瓶红酒。

Tā cóng jiālǐ ná láile yī píng hóngjiǔ.

He brought a bottle of red wine from home.

我帮你拿过来吧。

Wǒ bāng nǐ ná guòlái ba.

I'll bring it over for you.

Again, 拿 is used in these sentences because they’re about people moving things with their hands. If you replaced 拿 with 带, the sentences would still be acceptable, but there would be no focus on the physical carrying of the objects. Using 带 would simply state the objects were transported by the person.

Carrying things

Unlike 带, 拿 can be used to talk about physically carrying or holding things without specifying if they’re being taken anywhere. Have a look at some examples:

你可以帮我拿这个吗?

Nǐ kěyǐ bāng wǒ ná zhège ma?

Can you hold this for me?

她拿东西的时候背会有点疼。

Tā ná dōng xī de shíhou bèi huì yǒudiǎn téng.

Her back hurts when she carries things.

我一个人拿不了这么多东西。

Wǒ yīgè rén ná bùliǎo zhème duō dōngxi.

I can't carry all these things on my own.

When used to talk about carrying things, 拿 is very often combined with the aspect particle 着 (zhe). 着 is used to talk about continuous or ongoing actions.

Have a look at some examples with 拿 and 着:

他们都拿着票。

Tāmen dōu názhe piào.

They were all holding tickets.

你手里拿着什么?

Nǐ shǒu lǐ názhe shénme?

What have you got in your hand?

她拿着枪进去了银行。

Tā názhe qiāng jìnqùle yínháng.

She went into the bank with a gun.

Notice how 着 indicates that the action is ongoing. There isn’t a defined start or end point for the action; in the context of the sentence, it is continuous.

Getting or acquiring with 拿

As well as talking about physically moving things around, 拿 can also be used to talk about ‘getting’ or ‘acquiring’ things.

我拿到了签证就可以去。

Wǒ ná dàole qiānzhèng jiù kěyǐ qù.

I can go once I've got my visa.

你希望拿多少薪水?

Nǐ xīwàng ná duōshǎo xīnshuǐ?

What kind of salary do you expect to get?

我会在机场柜台拿机票。

Wǒ huì zài jīchǎng guìtái ná jīpiào.

I'll pick my ticket up at the airport counter.

You might see this as a slightly metaphorical use of 拿, because there isn’t necessarily anything being moved by hand. Alternatively, you might just interpret this as meaning that 拿 has a wider set of meanings.

带 (dài)

带 means ‘bring’ or ‘take’ in the sense of causing something to move with oneself to a destination. In that way it’s more general than 拿, and doesn’t have any implications about how the thing is moved.

Taking to and from with 带

As with 拿, whether 带 is translated into ‘bring’ or ‘take’ in English is decided by the direction of the movement. Chinese uses 带 for both directions:

你带这个去送给他们吧。

Nǐ dài zhège qù sòng gěi tāmen ba.

Take this and give it to them.

我把这个带走可以吗?

Wǒ bǎ zhège dài zǒu kěyǐ ma?

Is it alright if I take this with me?

一个人去很危险,带上这个吧。

Yīgè rén qù hěn wéixiǎn, dài shàng zhège ba.

It's dangerous to go alone — take this.

The important difference to 拿 is that these sentences with 带 don’t imply how the object is being moved. The person might be carrying it, putting in their bag or putting it in their car, for example.

Bringing to and from with 带

if the direction is towards the speaker, then 带 becomes ‘bring’ rather than ‘take’:

我没带在身上。

Wǒ mò dài zài shēnshang.

I haven't brought it with me.

你带伞了吗?

Nǐ dài sǎnle ma?

Did you bring an umbrella?

带上你的男朋友吧!

Dài shàng nǐ de nán péngyǒu ba!

Bring your boyfriend!

Like 拿, 带 is often combined with 着. This is often used to state that someone ‘has’ something, i.e that they have it with them. It could mean that they have it in the hand, but they could just have it on them or otherwise with them at moment.

For example:

她带着枪。

Tā dàizhe qiāng.

She's got a gun.

She's got a gun on her.

She's carrying a gun.

This sentence is very ambiguous because 带 doesn’t specify in what way exactly she possesses the gun, just that she’s got one. If you were to use 拿 instead of 带, it would be much clearer that she’s holding the gun in her hand.

Also note that the sentences above could all be in the past. Like other aspect particles, 着 is about the time frame we’re talking about, and not the time frame we’re talking in.

她带着枪。

Tā dàizhe qiāng.

She had a gun.

She had a gun on her.

She was carrying a gun.

Some more example sentences with 带 and 着:

带 can be used with abstract / intangible things

Finally, another difference between 拿 and 带 is that 带 can be used with abstract or intangible things, whereas this doesn’t tend to be the case with 拿.

Have a look at some examples:

他带着奇怪的眼神看着我。

Tā dàizhe qíguài de yǎnshén kànzhe wǒ.

He looked at me strangely.

她说话是带着浓重的美国口音。

Tā shuōhuà shì dàizhe nóngzhòng dì měiguó kǒuyīn.

She spoke with a thick American accent.

[This would often be said with 操着.]

他脸上带着灿烂的笑容。

Tā liǎn shàng dàizhe cànlàn de xiàoróng.

He had a beaming smile on his face.

“我们成功了!“ 她带着快乐的语气说。

“Wǒmen chénggōngle!“Tā dàizhe kuàilè de yǔqì shuō.

"We've done it!" she said happily.

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