Consider the below conversation between person 1 and person 2.

Person 1: Besides the letter he gave me, he also confided a packet to my care.

Person 2: What kind of packet are you talking about?

Person 1: The kind made of paper.

Why has the progressive been used here? Has person 1's talking about the packet not come to an end (so that it is not ongoing)? Why not 'What kind of packet do you talk about?'

2 Answers 2


"What kind of thing are you talking about?" is assuming that the person has not finished speaking, and they may have more to say, or you may want them to say more. If you have interrupted someone or are having a conversation about some topic, it is normal to use the present continuous. Similarly, if you see someone doing something and you go over to talk to them, and they stop so they can talk to you, you might ask: "What are you doing?" You would do this if you expect them to restart when you've finished.

If they clearly have finished or are not going to restart (e.g. someone sees you approaching and stops talking so you can't overhear them) you could say, "What were you talking about?" or "What were you doing?" Using past continuous tense implies action that went on for an extended period of time but is now over.

If someone says something you don't understand, you can also say, "What did you just say?" which implies that they have finished speaking. This would often be used if someone said something surprising or shocking.

Also, "What are you talking about?" can be used to express disbelief or frustration, as well as simply to ask for an explanation. The meaning depends on the tone of voice. "What the hell are you talking about?" makes it clear that you are shocked, frustrated, or maddened.

  • We wouldn't say "What do you talk about?" because it just isn't idiomatic in English. Aug 8, 2022 at 16:12

As with most verbs, we use the simple present of talk only in narrative, or in a habitual sense. In referring to an event happening now, we would say are talking.


What do you talk about?

is asking about your habit, for example

When you go and see your grandma, what do you talk about?

So in your example sentence, What kind of packet do you talk about? is something that a native speaker would not say.

Incidentally: I have never heard confide used of a physical object. I have only ever heard it used of intangibles like information, especially something secret.

  • Thank you for your answer. As for confide, I think that its meaning here is dated, especially seeing that the very conversation was based on one from an old novel.
    – Eric
    Aug 8, 2022 at 17:41

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .