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Heard at the cafe: "We have three milks: soy, almond, and cow."

Is it ok to use the word "milks" in this context? I've heard it in other uncountable nouns, like "essential oils", or "simple sugars", or "red wines", so why can't we ask, "which milks do you have?"

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That doesn’t really sound right to me. Perhaps it’s because calling something of non-dairy origin “milk” smacks of marketing spin, not accuracy. –  tchrist Apr 14 '13 at 21:05
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Sounds fine to me. And milk doesn't have to be from dairies, what about coconut milk? White sap from other plants is also called milk. –  Mynamite Apr 14 '13 at 22:38
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As a British English speaker, I would never say "We have three milks" - I would always say "We have three types of milk" and "what types of milk do you have?" –  Matt Apr 15 '13 at 9:21
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4 Answers

It is perfectly acceptable to use the plural of non-count nouns when discussing multiple different types of something.

Here are some examples, using milks:

Daily tests of the butterfat contents of the three milks showed much wider variations ...

The season's results of the casein analysis of the three milks are shown ...

Fish and fishes is another example that comes to mind.

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The real-world usage of fish and fishes is not as straightforward. Yes, plenty of folks subscribe to the rule of thumb that fishes is used to refer to multiple species of fish (when the species are significant). But plenty of people just use fish for that too, especially in nonscientific contexts (e.g. "Do you prefer salmon or tuna?" "Oh, I like both fish equally."). –  John Y Apr 14 '13 at 22:03
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Fish and fishes is irrelevant to milk versus milks, because fish is already singular as well as plural. One fish, two fish, three fish. "Fishes" is mostly used by children. –  Kaz Apr 14 '13 at 23:26
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For a closely related example, consider water and waters. –  Winston Ewert Apr 15 '13 at 1:11
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@Kaz that is not true. "Fishes" is correct when there are multiple types (or species) of fish. –  KennyPeanuts Apr 15 '13 at 18:26
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Kaz, I agree with @KennyPeanuts. This doesn't look like a children's book to me. –  J.R. Apr 15 '13 at 19:54
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This is an example of a well-established countification process for (some) mass nouns.
Below is a minor elaboration of the last comment on the answer linked above.

It's an ordinary example of how efficient language is in using resourses. Why waste a perfectly good plural suffix when it can be used to signal something else, like diversity of type (15 paints were used in this drawing), or vastness of extent (sands of the Sahara)?

There is also a massification for count nouns, referring to undifferentiated physical or spiritual phenomena (a lot of car for the money), etc.

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You would expect,"What kinds of milk do you have?" if you were asking whether they had soy, almond, skimmed, full or even semi-skimmed, for example.

"What milks do you have?" sounds vaguely ungrammatical or lazy.

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Yeah but if complete the sentence it doesn't wrong to me... "What milks do you have?" –  KennyPeanuts Apr 15 '13 at 18:28
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@Kenny - erm, what? I can't understand what this comment means. –  Rory Alsop Apr 15 '13 at 18:29
    
Sorry, I guess I was too vague. You seem to be suggesting that the phrase "What milks?" sounds wrong and I was merely indicating that if you substitute "milks" for "types of milk" into the whole complete sentence you quote above "What milks do you have?" that it doesn't sound wrong to me. –  KennyPeanuts Apr 15 '13 at 18:34
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A native English speaker would not say "what milks do you have?" I have updated my answer to make that clear. –  Rory Alsop Apr 15 '13 at 19:16
    
That's just your own bias speaking, this is perfectly grammatical and there is nothing lazy about it. Search google for "several milks" and look through the pages of results -- you'll see dozens upon dozens of uses by English speakers in varying contexts, including colloquial and scientific contexts. A few are using them as a substitute for countable "cartons of milk" but most are using in the "kinds of milk" sense. –  Ben Lee Apr 19 '13 at 21:27
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At http://www.mycolombianrecipes.com/three-milks-cake-torta-de-tres-leches is a recipe for 'Three Milks Cake' or 'Torta de Tres Leches':

Torta de Tres Leches or Three Milks Cake is a popular dessert in Colombia and Latin America. This cake gets the name from the three milks we use[:] condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream and [it is this that] makes this cake so moist and delicious.

The trouble with saying that this licenses the use of 'three milks' for 'three kinds of milk' more generally is that English is idiosyncratic. We'd say 'different allotropes (or polymorphs) of phosphorus', not 'different phosphoruses'. But 'different steels' is acceptable.

We'd certainly use 'three sugars' if talking about arabinose, xylose and sucrose, but rarely if ever if talking about caster sugar, demerara sugar and muscovado sugar.

The ratio of Google hits for "different musics" to "different styles / types of music" is about 1 : 40.

Again, considering portions / containers of ..., we might ask for two teas and three coffees, but surely not two waters and three milks - we'd revert to 'glasses of' here. But three milkshakes would be fine. Two beers and three lagers, yes, but two pints of mild and three pints of mixed.

So, we can't predict which usages should be / are considered acceptable, on the basis of analogy.

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The "three sugars" is exactly the same usage as I'm looking for. I wonder why it sounds awkward when "milk" is used instead. Your "glasses of" example refers to a completely different use, though. Asking for three milks would be awkward (probably comparable to someone asking for "3 beers" at a bar), but not similar to, for example, asking "which beers are on tap tonight?". –  sshanky Apr 14 '13 at 21:47
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Agreed - countification is employed to convey more than one notion. I'm just showing that there isn't a guaranteed logic to the examples that are considered allowable. I'd admit that the 'kinds of' variety is very productive; I'd not expect 'three waters' to be used for 'three kinds of water' though. And a pub serving three bitters and two milds would be able to serve - six mixeds!? –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 14 '13 at 21:55
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@John: Yes, I see that Wiktionary lists the 'glass of' milk usage as informally acceptable. I've never heard the ellipted version myself. It might be a mainly US usage. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 14 '13 at 22:23
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In the days before a certain minister stopped providing them, we used to get free milk every morning at infants school: it came in 1/3 pint glass bottles, and "milk" was very definitely a count noun in that context. –  Colin Fine Apr 14 '13 at 23:09
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And by the way, @sshanky, asking for "three beers" is not uncommon, as long as the brand is already understood. –  John M. Landsberg Apr 15 '13 at 9:21
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