On Friday, three days before his resignation was made public, O'Brien told the BBC that celibacy should be reconsidered since it's not based on doctrine but rather church tradition and "is not of divine origin."

The Huffington Post

Had I written that piece, I would have written "church's tradition". So the question is: Why doesn't the journalist use the genitive "'s"?


The possessive case is normally used when there is an animate "possessor" and in time expressions (in a week's time, for example).

Very often in English you create expressions in which you have two nouns used together, one of which serves as a kind of adjective, and as such is invariable.

So, in this sentence the writer has used the second structure, thus defining the noun "tradition" by connecting it to "church" used as an attribute. Personally, I feel that the genitive would not be suitable in this case.

  • 1
    Quite so. And with the genitive it would have to be the Church's tradition; doubtless somebody, either O'Brien or the journalist, was trying to avoid seeming to challenge the Church too explicitly, and to attribute the tradition to a vaguer generic churchly institutionality. – StoneyB Feb 25 '13 at 23:31

The possessive is normally used when something belongs to somebody/something. Church tradition is using church as attribute of tradition: It describes tradition, in the same way family describes business in family business.

As for using the possessive with church, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has 2288 sentences containing "church's [noun]" where the noun following church's is, for example, one of the following:

  • Position
  • Response
  • Money
  • Choir
  • Founder
  • Future
  • Pawn
  • Effort
  • Ministry

The sentences containing "church [noun] are 14032. In this case the noun following church is, for example, one of the following:

  • Dogmatics
  • Publications
  • Magazines
  • Strategy
  • Officials
  • Revivals
  • Teaching
  • Leaders
  • Shoes

Notice that church shoes is different from church's shoes, and that church hall is generally used to mean a room or building associated with a church. (Sometimes church hall is used to mean church, the building where Christians go to worship.)

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