Chemical Nomenclature


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First page of Lavoisier’s Chymical Nomenclature in English. Source: Public Domain,

OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Nomenclature, a collection of rules for naming things, is important in science and in many other situations.

Ionic Compounds

To name an inorganic compound, we need to consider the answers to several questions. First, is the compound ionic or molecular? If the compound is ionic, does the metal form ions of only one type (fixed charge) or more than one type (variable charge)? Are the ions monatomic or polyatomic? If the compound is molecular, does it contain hydrogen? If so, does it also contain oxygen? From the answers we derive, we place the compound in an appropriate category and then name it accordingly.

Compounds Containing Only Monatomic Ions

The name of a binary compound containing monatomic ions consists of the name of the cation (the name of the metal) followed by the name of the anion (the name of the nonmetallic element with its ending replaced by the suffix –ide).

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Compounds Containing Polyatomic Ions

Compounds containing polyatomic ions are named similarly to those containing only monatomic ions, i.e. by naming first the cation and then the anion.

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Compounds Containing a Metal Ion with a Variable Charge

Most of the transition metals and some main group metals can form two or more cations with different charges. Compounds of these metals with nonmetals are named with the same method as compounds in the first category, except the charge of the metal ion is specified by a Roman numeral in parentheses after the name of the metal. The charge of the metal ion is determined from the formula of the compound and the charge of the anion. For example, consider binary ionic compounds of iron and chlorine. Iron typically exhibits a charge of either 2+ or 3+, and the two corresponding compound formulas are FeCl2 and FeCl3. The simplest name, “iron chloride,” will, in this case, be ambiguous, as it does not distinguish between these two compounds. In cases like this, the charge of the metal ion is included as a Roman numeral in parentheses immediately following the metal name. These two compounds are then unambiguously named iron(II) chloride and iron(III) chloride, respectively.

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Out-of-date nomenclature used the suffixes –ic and –ous to designate metals with higher and lower charges, respectively: Iron(III) chloride, FeCl3, was previously called ferric chloride, and iron(II) chloride, FeCl2, was known as ferrous chloride. Though this naming convention has been largely abandoned by the scientific community, it remains in use by some segments of industry. For example, you may see the words stannous fluoride on a tube of toothpaste. This represents the formula SnF2, which is more properly named tin(II) fluoride. The other fluoride of tin is SnF4, which was previously called stannic fluoride but is now named tin(IV) fluoride.

Ionic Hydrates

Ionic compounds that contain water molecules as integral components of their crystals are called hydrates. The name for an ionic hydrate is derived by adding a term to the name for the anhydrous (meaning “not hydrated”) compound that indicates the number of water molecules associated with each formula unit of the compound. The added word begins with a Greek prefix denoting the number of water molecules and ends with “hydrate.” For example, the anhydrous compound copper(II) sulfate also exists as a hydrate containing five water molecules and named copper(II) sulfate pentahydrate. Washing soda is the common name for a hydrate of sodium carbonate containing 10 water molecules; the systematic name is sodium carbonate decahydrate.

Formulas for ionic hydrates are written by appending a vertically centered dot, a coefficient representing the number of water molecules, and the formula for water. The two examples mentioned in the previous paragraph are represented by the formulas

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Molecular (Covalent) Compounds

The bonding characteristics of inorganic molecular compounds are different from ionic compounds, and they are named using a different system as well. The charges of cations and anions dictate their ratios in ionic compounds, so specifying the names of the ions provides sufficient information to determine chemical formulas. However, because covalent bonding allows for significant variation in the combination ratios of the atoms in a molecule, the names for molecular compounds must explicitly identify these ratios.

Compounds Composed of Two Elements

When two nonmetallic elements form a molecular compound, several combination ratios are often possible. For example, carbon and oxygen can form the compounds CO and CO2. Since these are different substances with different properties, they cannot both have the same name (they cannot both be called carbon oxide). To deal with this situation, we use a naming method that is somewhat similar to that used for ionic compounds, but with added prefixes to specify the numbers of atoms of each element. The name of the more metallic element (the one farther to the left and/or bottom of the periodic table) is first, followed by the name of the more nonmetallic element (the one farther to the right and/or top) with its ending changed to the suffix –ide.

When only one atom of the first element is present, the prefix mono– is usually deleted from that part. Thus, CO is named carbon monoxide, and CO2 is called carbon dioxide. When two vowels are adjacent, the a in the Greek prefix is usually dropped.

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There are a few common names that you will encounter as you continue your study of chemistry. For example, although NO is often called nitric oxide, its proper name is nitrogen monoxide. Similarly, N2O is known as nitrous oxide even though our rules would specify the name dinitrogen monoxide. (And H2O is usually called water, not dihydrogen monoxide.) You should commit to memory the common names of compounds as you encounter them.

Binary Acids

Some compounds containing hydrogen are members of an important class of substances known as acids. The chemistry of these compounds is explored in more detail in later chapters of this text, but for now, it will suffice to note that many acids release hydrogen ions, H+, when dissolved in water. To denote this distinct chemical property, a mixture of water with an acid is given a name derived from the compound’s name. If the compound is a binary acid (comprised of hydrogen and one other nonmetallic element):

  1. The word “hydrogen” is changed to the prefix hydro-
  2. The other nonmetallic element name is modified by adding the suffix –ic
  3. The word “acid” is added as a second word

For example, when the gas HCl (hydrogen chloride) is dissolved in water, the solution is called hydrochloric acid.

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Many compounds containing three or more elements (such as organic compounds or coordination compounds) are subject to specialized nomenclature rules that you will learn later. However, we will briefly discuss the important compounds known as oxyacids, compounds that contain hydrogen, oxygen, and at least one other element, and are bonded in such a way as to impart acidic properties to the compound (you will learn the details of this in a later chapter). Typical oxyacids consist of hydrogen combined with a polyatomic, oxygen-containing ion. To name oxyacids:

  1. Omit “hydrogen”
  2. Start with the root name of the anion
  3. Replace –ate with –ic, or –ite with –ous
  4. Add “acid”

For example, consider H2CO3 (which you might be tempted to call “hydrogen carbonate”). To name this correctly, “hydrogen” is omitted; the –ate of carbonate is replace with –ic; and acid is added—so its name is carbonic acid. There are some exceptions to the general naming method (e.g., H2SO4 is called sulfuric acid, not sulfic acid, and H2SO3 is sulfurous, not sulfous, acid).

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Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: