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Chemistry LibreTexts

2.12: Chemical Symbols and Formulas

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    52544
  • Suppose you were walking along and noticed a piece of paper on the ground with markings on it. You pick it up and see the paper in the picture below. 

       

    Chess game.

    To most people, these notes are meaningless (maybe they're a secret spy code). But to a chess player, these symbols tell the story of a chess game. Each abbreviation describes a chess piece or a move during the game. The use of special symbols allows us to "see" the game without having to read a wordy and possibly incomplete description of what happened.

    Chemical Symbols and Formulas

    To illustrate chemical reactions and the elements and compounds involved in them, chemists use symbols and formulas. A chemical symbol is a one- or two-letter designation of an element. Some examples of chemical symbols are \(\ce{O}\) for oxygen, \(\ce{Zn}\) for zinc, and \(\ce{Fe}\) for iron. The first letter of a symbol is always capitalized. If the symbol contains two letters, the second letter is lower case. The majority of elements have symbols that are based on their English names. However, some of the elements that have been known since ancient times have maintained symbols that are based on their Latin names, as shown below.

    Chemical Symbol Name Latin Name
    Table 1: Symbols and Latin Names for Elements
    \(\ce{Na}\) Sodium Natrium
    \(\ce{K}\) Potassium Kalium
    \(\ce{Fe}\) Iron Ferrum
    \(\ce{Cu}\) Copper Cuprum
    \(\ce{Ag}\) Silver Argentum
    \(\ce{Sn}\) Tin Stannum
    \(\ce{Sb}\) Antimony Stibium
    \(\ce{Au}\) Gold Aurum
    \(\ce{Pb}\) Lead Plumbum

    Compounds are combinations of two or more elements. A chemical formula is an expression that shows the elements in a compound and the relative proportions of those elements. Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen in a two to one ratio. The chemical formula for water is \(\ce{H_2O}\). Sulfuric acid is one of the most widely produced chemicals in the United States and is composed of the elements hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen. The chemical formula for sulfuric acid is \(\ce{H_2SO_4}\).

    Summary

    A chemical symbol is a one- or two-letter designation of an element. Compounds are combinations of two or more elements. A chemical formula is an expression that shows the elements in a compound and the relative proportions of those elements. Many elements have symbols that derive from the Latin name for the element.

    Explore More

    Use the like below to answer the following questions:

    1. What is a chemical formula?

    2. What is the chemical formula for glucose? What does this formula signify?

    3. What is the chemical formula for caffeine?

    4. What is the chemical formula for sugar?

    Contributors

    • CK-12 Foundation by Sharon Bewick, Richard Parsons, Therese Forsythe, Shonna Robinson, and Jean Dupon.