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Have you ever told someone they look nice when you really don't mean it?

According to a native speaker, this sentence is fine and common. Why is this sentence OK and common?

I think the tenses don't match. "Have you ever..." refers to a period from your childhood up to now. "They look nice when you really don't mean it" refers to now. The time intervals just partially overlap.

I would think the following sentence is the only correct one.

Have you ever told someone they looked nice when you really didn't mean it?

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  • I'm not clear what you're unsure about. Did you expect different grammar, perhaps: "they looked nice when you really didn't mean it"? If so, please edit your question and say this directly.
    – gotube
    Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 1:04
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    I would certainly expect "didn't" rather than "don't" Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 1:07

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You are right that the tenses in the that-clause are incorrect: that said, it doesn't seem unnatural to me.

Grammar rules for speech are somewhat more relaxed than for writing: as long as it's not ambiguous, and it doesn't sound completely wrong, not many people would notice. As this Ngram graph shows, the simple present form is used occasionally in writing (where the rules are stricter) though the past simple form is a lot more common.

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  • Stephen, you asked a question yesterday about sentences of this type, and I told you that I personally would use the past tense. I deliberately didn't say that you shouldn't use the present tense because, like JavaLatte, I had a feeling that people do use it informally. Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 7:31

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