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I heard (and read on subtitles) the sentence in a TED talk. I think the sentence should be "It's the worst thing we can do before we go to sleep" and I don't understand why the past tense of go is used.

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    Without a link to the source I don't see what we can say here apart from You're probably right. But it's not easy to see how auto-generated subtitles could make such a mistake, and it's very unlikely a native speaker would actually say what you've transcribed.in your title. Apr 16 '18 at 16:55
  • I agree with @FumbleFingers. It's wrong and you're right to call it.
    – Aethelbald
    Apr 16 '18 at 18:23
  • It was the worst thing [...] before we went to sleep. It is the worst thing [...] before we go to sleep or before going to sleep. Often, speech is sloppy is the short answer.
    – Lambie
    Apr 16 '18 at 20:57
  • Also, acceptable: It's the worst thing [[present] we could have done [past] before going to sleep/before we went to sleep. That back shift is fine.
    – Lambie
    Apr 16 '18 at 21:35
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A) It's [present] the worst thing we can do [present]:

- before we go to sleep [present]

- before going to sleep [participle/gerund form]

B) It's [present] the worst thing we could do [past]:

- before we went to sleep [past]

- before going to sleep [participle/gerund form]

The verb pattterns have to be:

present in main clause + present + present

OR

present in the main clause + past + past.

It's the worst thing [present] we can do [present] before we went to sleep [past] is not standard.

It's fine to have a present in the main and back shift both the others. It's not fine to have a present in the main clause and back shift in only one verb in the second clause. It would be usual for speakers to mix up the back shift in one verb and not the other.

That said, speakers speak spontaneously when doing public speaking or being interviewed. Therefore, one does fine irregularities in speech that might not normally be found in a speaker's speech patterns.

I like the friends we have and the place where we live. I like the friends we had and the place where we lived.

I like the friends we had and the place we live. [not usual at all, to back shift one verb and not the other.]

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Usually the verb forms go like this:

Present - present (talking about something that people sometimes do): It's the worst thing we can do before we go to sleep.

Conditional - simple past (talking about something that people might do): It's the worst thing we could do before we went to sleep.

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  • I agree but I also would like to point out that in spontaneous speech mistakes often occur that would not occur in written form.
    – Lambie
    Apr 16 '18 at 21:34
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I don't have the TED Talk at hand, but that sentence would be idiomatic if it is referring to a hypothetical scenario, the backshift of tense to went expressing a form of irrealis. As Michael Harvey put it, "talking about something that people might do".

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  • It's simply agrammatical, anyway you look at it. That said, when people speak, they often make mistakes that they might not make in other circumstances such as writing.
    – Lambie
    Apr 16 '18 at 20:58
  • I don't think it's as simple as that at all. If you're looking for something ungrammatical, can should be could. Apr 16 '18 at 21:47
  • I see no universe in which the OP's question is grammatical. Yes, can **should be **could. Then, it would work. That specific back shifting would work.
    – Lambie
    Apr 16 '18 at 22:20
  • @Lambie: I must live in a county that is frozen in time. The true "locals" whose grandparents and great-grandparents lived here too, say things like that all the time. We backshift all over the place. Apr 17 '18 at 11:44

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