If we are not sure whether this is a place with goods or just stock (or supplies of something), should we always use the noun "stores" (in the plural)?

My question was inspired by this definition (1.2) in the Oxford Dictionaries.

(Stores) Supplies of equipment and food kept for use by members of an army, navy, or other institution, or the place where they are kept:

-cupboards for medical stores
-he keeps the ship’s stores
-crates started arriving at the quartermaster’s stores

Can a store of raw materials mean both a place and stock?

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    I would say check all of the definitions of store to see if they describe what you are after. – user3169 May 10 '15 at 18:49
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    Apparently so, in a military context. This term is not normally used outside the military. In non-military parlance, a store (noun) sells goods (wares) which it stores (verb) in a stockroom. New stock for the store's stockroom is brought from a warehouse. – Brian Hitchcock May 11 '15 at 9:05
  • @BrianHitchcock I don't think this is restricted to military usage, although it may be more common. My business has a store of printer paper. If you have something stored, then you have a store of it. Still, I think our store of paper would more often be referred to as a 'supply' or 'stock' of papaer. – DCShannon May 27 '15 at 1:33

No, you shouldn't always use the plural.

This is easier to explain after answering your second question:

Yes, the singular 'store' can mean either a stock of materials or a shop.

You should use the plural form when you're referring to something that is plural, whether it is multiple shops or multiple stocks, and the singular when referring to a single thing, whether it is a single shop or a single stock.

Addressing your examples

cupboards for medical stores

A ship would likely have stores of multiple different types of medical materials: at least one store of bandages, at least one store of painkillers, at least one store of antibiotics, and so on. Together, these are the "medical stores". So you use the plural because you are referring to more than one store.

he keeps the ship’s stores

This is like the last one, but all kinds of different supplies, not just medical ones.

crates started arriving at the quartermaster’s stores

This could be ambiguous if you don't know what a quartermaster is.

If it said "the tailor's stores" you would probably assume it meant that crates were arriving at the shops owned by the tailor, as tailors tend to sell things.

Quartermasters are in charge of keeping track of supplies. If you're in the military and you need some shovels to dig a ditch, you might go ask the quartermaster for some. So, the quartermaster's stores are just where the quartermaster stores all the different supplies. The spot where each type of supply is stored is a store of that supply, so we have multiple stores.

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Should we always use the plural stores if "we" aren't sure whether a place with goods or a simple stock is being referred to?

No. There is no rule for defaulting to plural if you are unsure of the number, it is simply slightly safer to use the plural because you're less likely to be wrong.

Can [the singular] store of raw materials mean both a place and a stock?

Yes. For example: the store of bandages should go in the cupboard, but the stores of rations should be secured in the hold on the other side of the ammunition store.

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  • How does using the plural make you less likely to be wrong, especially given that the singular 'store' can refer to either a shop or a stock? The plural form works for plurals, and the singular works for singles. If you have 'stores' of rations, there should somehow be distinct stores, like separate locations or multiple crates. – DCShannon May 27 '15 at 1:38
  • With the singular, you would only be correct if one of the items exist. With plural, if zero items or more than one item exist, you are correct. So, in a single word: probability. – Omnidisciplinarianist May 28 '15 at 18:00

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