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On OALD, it's mentioned:

whereabouts (n) - the place where somebody/something is

The example below is quite clear - Hs whereabouts are/is still unknown. This means, where is he, is still unknown.

Now the adverb whereabouts

whereabouts (adv) - used to ask the general area where somebody/something is

The example is Whereabouts did you find it?

The general area?

What could be the answer to this? If I found it in my drawer, it's not a general area but the area, the exact area where I found it.

If you find something, you find it at the exact place. As it's described in OALD, this must be a valid question but then what could be your answer? You answer anything and it will be opposite to the meaning of adverb whereabouts. The meaning says approximate/general place but if you find something, you find it at the exact place and not general!

Does it mean that I lost a key and this conversation takes place...

Whereabouts did you find a key? ~ I found it in a room (because the asker used 'whereabouts' so it should be general place.

And the same key, the same incidence but if someone asks...

Where did you find a key? ~ I found it in a drawer (because the asker used 'where' so it should be the 'exact' place.

Does it mean, again, that if you want to ask general, you use whereabouts but if you want to know the exact place, whereabouts won't work? Instead, we use where?

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For starters, there is usually nothing wrong with giving a more precise answer than what is asked for.

If someone asks me "about what time will your plane land?", I am certainly not "forbidden" to answer "Oh, it's supposed to land at 12:34".

The person is not asking for the precise time, because I may not have my flight information at hand, and anyway, if they want to come and pick me up, the exact time of landing is immaterial. But That doesn't mean it is in any way "wrong" for me to give the exact planned landing time.

So if someone asks you "whereabouts did you find the key?", there is little wrong with the answer "in the bathroom, behind the sink". Actually, that would be more appreciated than "oh, somewhere in the village"!

Now, I would actually think that whereabouts would not be used when asking for such things. There is hardly any imprecise answer that would give any useful information to someone wondering about where you found your keys...

I would expect to see whereabouts more in sentences like "Whereabouts in India have you been?" - to which, indeed, a detailed itinerary of my three-months trip, including hotel names and restaurants, would be an inappropriate answer!

Whereabouts did you find it? could easily be answered with Oh, in the XVIIIth arrondissement:

  • Have you read my blog about that lovely restaurant in Paris?
  • Yes! That sounds like a great place! Whereabouts did you find it?
  • It was in the XVIIIth arrondissement.
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  • time is generally approximate (unless you countdown at NASA!). The place is exact. That's what the question is. But thanks for the answer ;) +1 for the proper use of whereabouts in that India example. That's how I think as well. – Maulik V Jul 30 '14 at 9:07
  • @MaulikV Nearly everything is approximate if you really want to split hairs. For example, it's roughly 2014-10-21 03:22:35.348081299-05:00 right now (more or less). – Edwin Buck Oct 21 '14 at 8:23
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I think the problem here is that the question should be, “Whereabouts did you lose it?”. That is… the question is/should be looking for a vague answer. (That is why the word “about” appears in the word.) “Whereabouts did you find it?” is a bad example.

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