What chemical symbols and formulae are, and how to read them correctly.
Why they are used in chemistry and their advantage.
How they are used to describe more complex chemicals.
A chemical symbol is a one or two letter symbol used to refer to any element listed in the Periodic Table.
They are used not just because they are 'shortcut' ways of writing the element’s name, but because the chemical symbol of separate elements can be combined to make chemical formulae.
Chemical formulae describe more complicated chemicals called molecules, which are chemicals made of more than one atom combined together, and compounds, which are chemicals made of more than one type of atom (elements!) combined together.
Learn these words carefully – Every single chemical in existence is made of one or more atoms. Not all chemicals are made of one of more types of atoms! For example with the chemical compound carbon dioxide (CO2) and the molecule nitrogen gas (N2):
We can call the individual carbon dioxide ‘pieces’ (one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms each) molecules. Carbon dioxide is a compound and a sample of it will contain millions of carbon dioxide molecules.
But nitrogen gas is not a compound because it is made of only one type of atom - nitrogen. It is a chemical made of two nitrogen atoms combining to form a molecule, not a compound.
Chemical formulae for chemical compounds obey Proust’s law, or the law of definite proportions: A chemical formula shows the ratio of each element (measured by mass) in a chemical compound. This ratio is always true regardless of how the chemical was prepared.
The advantage of chemical formulae over written names of chemicals is that they can specify the exact number of each atom in that chemical, as a ratio of all the elements it’s made of.
For example: magnesium hydroxide, Mg(OH)2 and sodium hydroxide, NaOH. Here, the chemical formulae clarifies the ‘hydroxide’ term as the first compound has two hydroxide groups, and the second has only one.
Be careful with capital letters in chemical formulae. The second letter of chemical symbols are always lower case, so a capital letter always shows a new element symbol.
For example: CO and Co are two completely different chemicals. CO is a compound of carbon (C) and oxygen (O) called carbon monoxide, whereas Co is symbol for the metal element Cobalt.
Numbers in subscript are used to specify how many of the atom are present in a molecule of the chemical. Do not confuse this with superscript which is not used in chemical formulae. For example: Na2O is a compound that is made of two atoms of sodium and one atom of oxygen.
Brackets ( ) followed by numbers in chemical formulae are used to show that every atom contained in the brackets is present in that quantity.
For example: the chemical formula Mg(OH)2 shows that, as a ratio, this compound contains two of both O and H atoms for every one Mg atom.
If there is no number in subscript written after a chemical formula, it means that only one of that type of atom is present in this chemical.
When writing simpler chemical formulae, the metal (and hydrogen) atoms are normally written first, followed by non-metal atoms or groups of atoms in a formulae.
Introduction to Chemical formulae
Apply your knowledge to write the chemical formulae of simple compounds and molecules.
Write the chemical formulae for:
Introduction to chemical formulae
Don't just watch, practice makes perfect.
We have over NaN practice questions in Chemistry for you to master.