Chapter 6. Inorganic Compound Nomenclature

Enhanced Introductory College Chemistry

by Gregory Anderson; Caryn Fahey; Jackie MacDonald; Adrienne Richards; Samantha Sullivan Sauer; J.R. van Haarlem; and  David Wegman;

Chapter Contents

Except where otherwise noted, this OER is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Please visit the web version of Enhanced Introductory College Chemistry to access the complete book, interactive activities and ancillary resources.

In this chapter, you will learn about

  • Elements and their associated ions (cations and anions)
  • Nomenclature
  • Writing chemical formulas
  • Naming binary ionic compounds
  • Naming molecular compounds
  • Naming acids

To better support your learning, you should be familiar with the following concepts before starting this chapter:

  • Elements and ions
  • Groups in the periodic table (metals and nonmetals)
  • Formation of compounds

In this chapter, we will be learning about chemical nomenclature.

Chemical nomenclature is far too big a topic to treat comprehensively, and it would be a useless diversion to attempt to do so in a beginning course; most chemistry students pick up chemical names and the rules governing them as they go along. But we can hardly talk about chemistry without mentioning some chemical substances, all of which do have names— and often, more than one!

There are more than 100 million named chemical substances. Who thinks up the names for all these chemicals? Are we in danger of running out of new names? The answer to the last question is “no”, for the simple reason that the vast majority of the names are not “thought up”; there are elaborate rules for assigning names to chemical substances on the basis of their structures. These are called systematic names; they may be a bit ponderous, but they uniquely identify a given substance. The rules for these names are defined by an international body. But in order to make indexing and identification easier, every known chemical substance has its own numeric “personal ID”, known as a CAS registry number. For example, caffeine is uniquely identified by the registry number 58-08-2. About 15,000 new numbers are issued every day.

Common and Systematic Names

Many chemicals are so much a part of our life that we know them by their familiar names, just like our other friends. A given substance may have several common or trivial names; ordinary cane sugar, for example, is more formally known as “sucrose”, but asking for it at the dinner table by that name will likely be a conversation-stopper, and I won’t even venture to predict the outcome if you try using its systematic name in the same context:

“please pass the α-D-glucopyranosyl-(1,2)- β-D-fructofuranoside!”

But “sucrose” would be quite appropriate if you need to distinguish this particular sugar from the hundreds of other named sugars. The only place you would come across a systematic name like the rather unwieldy one mentioned here is when referring (in print or in a computer data base) to a sugar that has no common name.

Chemical substances have been a part the fabric of civilization and culture for thousands of years, and present-day chemistry retains a lot of this ancient baggage in the form of terms whose hidden cultural and historic connections add colour and interest to the subject. Many common chemical names have reached us only after remarkably long journeys through time and place, as the following two examples illustrate.


Most people can associate the name ammonia (NH3) with a gas having a pungent odour; the systematic name “nitrogen trihydride” (which is rarely used) will tell you its formula. What it will not tell you is that smoke from burning camel dung (the staple fuel of North Africa) condenses on cool surfaces to form a crystalline deposit. The ancient Romans first noticed this on the walls and ceiling of the temple that the Egyptians had built to the Sun-god Amun in Thebes, and they named the material sal ammoniac, meaning “salt of Amun”. In 1774, Joseph Priestly (the discoverer of oxygen) found that heating sal ammoniac produced a gas with a pungent odour, which a T. Bergman named “ammonia” eight years later.


Alcohol entered the English language in the 17th Century with the meaning of a “sublimated” substance, then became the “pure spirit” of anything, and only became associated with “spirit of wine” in 1753. Finally, in 1852, it become a part of chemical nomenclature that denoted a common class of organic compound. But it’s still common practice to refer to the specific substance CH3CH2OH as “alcohol” rather then its systematic name ethanol.

Arabic alchemy has given us a number of chemical terms; for example, alcohol is believed to derive from Arabic or al-ghawl whose original meaning was a metallic powder used to darken women’s eyelids (kohl).

Popular Names

The general practice among chemists is to use the more common chemical names whenever it is practical to do so, especially in spoken or informal written communication. For many of the very simplest compounds (including most of those you will encounter in a first-year course), the systematic and common names are the same, but where there is a difference and if the context permits it, the common name is usually preferred.

Many of the “common” names we refer to are known and used mainly by the scientific community. Chemical substances that are employed in the home, the arts, or in industry have acquired traditional or “popular” names that are still in wide use. Many, like sal ammoniac mentioned above, have fascinating stories to tell. Table 6a provides a list of popular names, their associated chemical names and their chemical formula.

popular name chemical name Formula
Table 6a A list of popular names, their associated chemical name and formula.
borax sodium tetraborate decahydrate B4O7·10H2O
calomel mercury(I) chloride Hg2Cl2
milk of magnesia magnesium hydroxide Mg(OH)2
muriatic acid hydrochloric acid HCl(aq)
oil of vitriol sulfuric acid H2SO4
saltpeter sodium nitrate NaNO3
slaked lime calcium hydroxide Ca(OH)2

are solid materials that occur in the earth which are classified and named according to their compositions (which often vary over a continuous range) and the arrangement of the atoms in their crystal lattices. There are about 4000 named minerals. Many are named after places, people, or properties, and most frequently end with -ite.

Proprietary Names

Chemistry is a major industry, so it is not surprising that many substances are sold under trademarked names. This is especially common in the pharmaceutical industry, which uses computers to churn out names that they hope will distinguish a new product from those of its competitors. Perhaps the most famous of these is Aspirin, whose name was coined by the German company Bayer in 1899. This trade name was seized by the U.S. government following World War I, and is no longer a protected trademark in that country.

Attribution & References

Except where otherwise noted, this section is adapted by Adrienne Richards and Samantha Sullivan Sauer from “4.5 Introduction to Chemical Nomenclature” in Book: Chem1 (Lower) (LibreTexts Chemistry) by Stephen Lower, Licensed under CC BY 3.0.


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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.

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