What is the right inflection for the verb "deserve" in this sentence?

"On balance, that sentence gives me more credit than I - or any villain - deserves."

"deserve", which agrees with the singular "I"?

"deserves", which sounds more natural, even though it's agreeing with "villain"?

1 Answer 1


When you relate two or more items with "or", you use whichever form matches the item nearest the verb. If the nearest item to the verb (which is almost always the latter or last item) is singular, you use a singular verb form. This applies no matter how many items are joined.

Contrast to "and", which is always plural because the two or more items joined all act together.

Examples of "or":

Five or six feels about right to me.

Ryan or Jack has a blue one.

One o'clock, three o'clock, or five o'clock works for me.

  • 2
    That's the best rule we can come up with, but in fact it's just a workaround. The real solution is not to use disjoined unmatched noun phrases as subjects in the present tense, because verb agreement doesn't really work right in that situation. Commented May 20, 2020 at 21:42
  • Here’s another sentence that exhibits the trait I’m looking for (and thanks to the editors who lend focus and clarity to the question!). “You and those geese just fly off, together?” But this example is too contrived, I think, and it suffers from “disjointed unmatched noun phrases”, following John’s critique. Commented May 21, 2020 at 8:37

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