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According to Google Ngrams "café au laits" is more common.

On Google Books, however, cafés au lait is quite common.

Which plural form is more common? (Especially in the US?)

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    You need to check the results, for example I found: "Sandrine poured coffee into two café-au-lait bowls” and then the other examples are focused on skin birthmarks "Patient with two café au lait spotsctf.org/images/uploads/PossibleNF1_CafeAuLaitSpots.pdf
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 30, 2022 at 6:51
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    The second is correct French, the first treats the whole phrase as a loanword and makes it follow English rules. Apr 30, 2022 at 8:29
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    As I speak French, I would probably use the French version (I don't remember ever having had occasion to write it!) Apr 30, 2022 at 12:40
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    @MichaelHarvey That's dos cafés con leche, due is Italian.
    – Lambie
    Apr 30, 2022 at 22:25
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    @MichaelHarvey Café-au-lait is not necessarily racist in French. It is merely the name of a color here. It is however likely racist in the sentence you quote. It is also misspelled, it should be café-au-lait with hyphens when referring to a color and not a drink, and as such, it is also invariable in French., e.g. des peaux café-au-lait (not cafés-au-lait.)
    – jlliagre
    May 1, 2022 at 9:42

2 Answers 2

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As I'm sure you know, the literal English translation of 'cafe au lait' is 'coffee with milk'. If we were using the English, we would say:

  • One coffee with milk
  • Two coffees with milk

However, 'cafe au lait' as a loan from French is a compound noun, therefore it is quite acceptable to pluralise the entire noun:

  • Two cafe au laits.

This is because we are asking for 'cafe au lait' as a complete item, not for coffee to be served with milk. For comparison, note that the British dish 'Fish and Chips' is never pluralised as 'fishes and chips'. Native speakers would ask for "two fish and chips", or "fish and chips twice".

As to which is more 'popular' - to be honest, it probably isn't used often enough in English to be dogmatic about that. In the UK, where France is our near neighbour, we are well aware of the term but don't really use it. There are more Italian loanwords used, like caffe latte. This also seems to be the case in US coffee chains, which are also present in the UK.

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  • Café au lait has heated milk. Coffee with milk is not heated, typically. And in France, in a café, café au lait is served in a cup. Generally, the bowl thing is in people's homes, not at a café.
    – Lambie
    May 5, 2022 at 13:55
  • @Lambie That's partly irrelevant, and partly wrong. The direct translation is irrelevant. Many loanwords are used differently to their original language meaning. Cul-de-sac, for example. It's also wrong, as 'coffee with milk' in many parts of the UK does mean coffee (often instant) made entirely with hot milk instead of water.
    – Astralbee
    May 5, 2022 at 13:59
  • Actually, it isn't because the translation is: coffee with heated milk, if you care about being precise and actual meaning. You posted the translation, not me. Generally, "would you like a coffee? Or: some coffee? Yes. How do you take it? With milk or black? By definition, café au lait comes with heated milk. It is not made with it. And finally, the bowl thing in France is in people's homes. Not in a café.
    – Lambie
    May 5, 2022 at 14:01
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    @Lambie As usual you're being hypercritical and adding nothing to the answer. 1. You have failed to notice I expressly stated literal translation. The literal translation is not always the meaning in any language. 2. I know what a cafe au lait is, my family lived in France for 12 years. 3. You're completely hung up on the French meaning when this question and answer is about English. The meaning of it is not in question. I merely brought up the literal translation to make the point that it would be pluralised differently if we read it that way, but we don't.
    – Astralbee
    May 5, 2022 at 15:24
  • You said: "If we were using the English, we would say", one coffee with milk. I am not hypercritical. You just missed the specifics on this. So, in fact, you are translating and you apparently feel the idea of hot milk is not important. And café au lait is only served for breakfast (generally) in bowls in people's houses.
    – Lambie
    May 5, 2022 at 17:08
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There is always a question when dealing with borrowed words: *Do you follow the grammar rules of the original language, or of English?

Is "cacti" or "cactuses" the correct plural? Should you say "2 sushi" or "2 sushis".

In more formal writing, it is common to follow the rules of the original language. And so in books you'd expect "cafés au lait" to be common. But in informal writing, or when representing speech in text, you'd expect "cafe au laits" to be quite common.

In fact, I'd prefer using a counter: "Two cups of café au lait". By treating as uncountable, then problem vanishes.

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  • I don't think the 'cup' solution is a satisfactory answer... partly because it dodges the issue rather than answer it, but also because cafe au lait isn't traditionally served in a cup, it is served in a bowl. In some places, that's all that differentiates it from a Caffe Latte.
    – Astralbee
    Apr 30, 2022 at 21:12
  • Two bowls of cafe au lait. But the OP asked about America where all styles of coffee are normally served in cups....Dodging the problem is the point. I'll dodge any issue if I can!
    – James K
    May 1, 2022 at 5:48

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