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Consider the two sentences:

Whenever I discuss X, people don't know what I'm talking about.

Whenever I discuss X, people don't know what I talk about.

I think the first one should be obviously idiomatic to any anglophone, while the second one sounds unnatural, ungrammatical, and wrong. But why?

"Whenever" implies regularity, a repeated action, so we use the Present Simple tense. Hence, it should be "discuss", "know", and "talk". Instead, "talking" is idiomatic.

Can anyone provide a good grammatical rationale for this phenomenon? I would appreciate any authoritative references since I'm drawing a blank.

Thank you!

  • Well, I can't point to references, but if you're discussing something what you're talking about is what's being said then and there, whereas "what I talk about" doesn't link it in time to the discussing. – ralph.m Dec 7 '15 at 22:56
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    The verb "discuss" is not the only verb that allows this construction. "Whenever I leave the building, people don't know where I'm going." – michael_timofeev Dec 8 '15 at 1:03
  • @michael_timofeev Good point, Michael. – A.P. Dec 8 '15 at 11:11
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It seems a bit idiomatic.

Skip the whenever. You say, I just went to the show. Your listener responds I don't know what you are talking about.

We regularly use talking about to refer to the subject of a discourse, even a completed one. We could say I don't know what you just talked about, but that is not the norm.

No references. No rule. Just impression.

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It sounds to my ear that the first one is correct. The "whenever" seems to give the sense of "during" - "During the times when I am discussing X..." so during each short period of time that I am discussing X, I am talking about it.

  • Thanks for the answer. But I disagree that "whenever" implies duration. It means "every time something happens", or "every time". – A.P. Dec 8 '15 at 11:15

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