This is from a doctor's suggestion to a patient on what he should eat or drink:

The main thing is to have light coloured drinks, definitely no red or purple. You can have carbonated drinks, tea and coffee without milk.

The part of the sentence "...tea and coffee without milk." caught my attention. I thought the patient should not add milk in tea or coffee. But a friend of me said he can have tea (doesn't matter with or without milk), and he can also have coffee but he shouldn't add milk to his coffee.

So, I wondered whether the milk also is related to coffee only. I mean some people add milk into their teas too. So may be "without milk" is referring to the both "tea and coffee, not just coffee."

To sum up, I got confused and want to ask: "Does "....without milk" in the sentence cover both tea and coffee** OR does it mean "you can have tea (it doesn't matter with or without milk)" and "you can have coffee (but definitely no milk)"? In other words, does the word "milk" is only about the "coffee" or does it extend to "both tea and coffee"?

  • 2
    Please name the source. Is this dialogue from a real situation or is it made up?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 26, 2023 at 9:31
  • It sounds a bit contradictory, as black coffee isn't a 'light-coloured drink'! Feb 26, 2023 at 15:34

2 Answers 2


Grammatically it is ambiguous, but pragmatically the meaning is clear.

The doctor is telling him to avoid food and many drinks, that includes (apparently) milk. My guess is this is to prepare for an operation. So what is more likely? "Milk is okay in tea, but not okay in coffee" or "No milk, even in tea or coffee". I'm not a medical expert, but the latter seems far more likely.

There is no grammar clue to this, only my general knowledge about the kind of rules you have to obey before an operation.


It's definitely ambiguous as written, but if this is pre-op advice, then it really should exclude milk in any form.

It looks like a 'nil by mouth' instruction set for a medical procedure, though it's worded slightly oddly & also seems to allow carbonated drinks, which I've always understood to be excluded from the allowable liquids.
Milk is not allowed, in either tea or coffee [or any other way].

Just for some additional clarity, this is a real pre-op nil-by-mouth from an actual hospital, for an actual procedure - mine, last week.

Please do not eat for 6 hours prior to your procedure or drink any fluids for 2 hours prior to your procedure. You can drink clear fluids up to 2 hours prior to your procedure. Please see below examples of clear fluids:

  • Still water, clear non-opaque fruit juice, squash/cordial, BLACK tea/coffee, ready diluted drinks, pre-operative carbohydrate drink or sports drinks.
  • You must not have any fizzy or dairy based drinks.
  • thank you. your answer was very helpful, however what is "a procedure" in your answer. Does it mean "a surgery" or "an operation"? I ask this because I saw the same word in a sentence in the conversation which is about preparations before surgery. "You are having a morning procedure." I could not understand what "procedure" means here. I was wondering about it and I saw the same word in your answer. Does it mean "your surgery will be in the morning?"
    – Yunus
    Feb 26, 2023 at 12:29
  • "Procedure" is a blanket term, from minor to major operations. Your 'procedure' time will be the time they wheel you down to theatre to get started. Morning is best; that way you're not hungry all day ;) Feb 26, 2023 at 12:35

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