3.1 Elements

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Write and interpret symbols that depict the element

Chemical Symbols

A chemical symbol is an abbreviation that we use to indicate an element or an atom of an element. For example, the symbol for mercury is Hg (Figure 3.1a). We use the same symbol to indicate one atom of mercury (microscopic domain) or to label a container of many atoms of the element mercury (macroscopic domain).

A jar labeled “H g” is shown with a small amount of liquid mercury in it.
Figure 3.1a: The symbol Hg represents the element mercury regardless of the amount; it could represent one atom of mercury or a large amount of mercury. (credit: work by A, PD)

The symbols for several common elements and their atoms are listed in Table 3.1a Some symbols are derived from the common name of the element; others are abbreviations of the name in another language. Most symbols have one or two letters, but three-letter symbols have been used to describe some elements that have atomic numbers greater than 112. To avoid confusion with other notations, only the first letter of a symbol is capitalized. For example, Co is the symbol for the element cobalt, but CO is the notation for the compound carbon monoxide, which contains atoms of the elements carbon (C) and oxygen (O). All known elements and their symbols are in the periodic table (Figure 3.1c).

Table 3.1a: Some Common Elements and Their Symbols
Element Symbol Element Symbol
aluminum Al iron Fe (from ferrum)
bromine Br lead Pb (from plumbum)
calcium Ca magnesium Mg
carbon C mercury Hg (from hydrargyrum)
chlorine Cl nitrogen N
chromium Cr oxygen O
cobalt Co potassium K (from kalium)
copper Cu (from cuprum) silicon Si
fluorine F silver Ag (from argentum)
gold Au (from aurum) sodium Na (from natrium)
helium He sulfur S
hydrogen H tin Sn (from stannum)
iodine I zinc Zn

Traditionally, the discoverer (or discoverers) of a new element names the element. However, until the name is recognized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), the recommended name of the new element is based on the Latin word(s) for its atomic number. For example, element 106 was called unnilhexium (Unh), element 107 was called unnilseptium (Uns), and element 108 was called unniloctium (Uno) for several years. These elements are now named after scientists (or occasionally locations); for example, element 106 is now known as seaborgium (Sg) in honour of Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize winner who was active in the discovery of several heavy elements.

Scientists in Action: Marguerite Perey, PhD.

This image shows the periodic table with a black textbox around Francium to indicate the location of this element on the periodic table. The location is at group 1 and the 7th row. The last element in the first column. The other images include Fr as the symbol for Francium with 1 valence electron, the total number of protons present which is 87 and the total number of neutrons present which is 136.
Figure 3.1b: Francium (credit: work by Ahoerstemeier, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The discovery of the element 87 on the periodic table is thanks to Marguerite Perey, a French woman scientist. The story of the discovery of element 87, known as Francium, can be found on the Royal Society of Chemistry [New Tab] website. Marguerite Perey was nominated five times for a Nobel Prize but never received one.

Source: Chapman, K. (2020, August 3). Marguerite Perey and the last element in nature. Chemistry World. https://www.chemistryworld.com/culture/marguerite-perey-and-the-last-element-in-nature/4012198.article


Graphic version of Periodic Table of Elements.
Figure 3.1c: Elements and their symbols in the periodic table. Review the Periodic Table of the Elements in other formats in Appendix A (credit: Chemistry (OpenStax), CC BY 4.0).


Exercise 3.1a: Drag the element names to their proper symbol on the periodic table

Check Your Learning Exercise (Text Version)

For each of the following elements listed, write the element’s symbol.

  1. Magnesium
  2. Copper
  3. Chlorine
  4. Gold
  5. Silicon
  6. Potassium
  7. Iron
  8. Tungsten

Check Your Answer[1]

Source: “Exercise 3.1a” by Samantha Sullivan Sauer licensed under CC 4.0.

Links to Interactive Learning Tools

Visit the IUPAC, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry website to learn more about IUPAC, and explore its periodic table.

Practice Name That Element from the Physics Classroom.

Attribution & References

Except where otherwise noted, this page is adapted by Adrienne Richards from “2.3 Atomic Structure and Symbolism” In General Chemistry 1 & 2 by Rice University, a derivative of Chemistry (Open Stax) by Paul Flowers, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley & William R. Robinson and is licensed under CC BY 4.0. ​

  1. (a) Mg; (b) Cu; (c) Cl; (d) Au; (e) Si; (f) K; (g) Fe; (h) W;


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Enhanced Introductory College Chemistry Copyright © 2023 by Gregory Anderson; Caryn Fahey; Jackie MacDonald; Adrienne Richards; Samantha Sullivan Sauer; J.R. van Haarlem; and David Wegman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book