Chapter 5: Molecules, Compounds, and Chemical Equations

5.4 Chemical Nomenclature

Learning Outcomes

  • Derive names for common types of inorganic compounds using a systematic approach

Nomenclature, a collection of rules for naming things, is important in science and in many other situations. This chapter describes an approach that is used to name simple ionic and molecular compounds, such as [latex]\ce{NaCl}[/latex], [latex]\ce{CaCO3}[/latex], and [latex]\ce{N2O4}[/latex]. The simplest of these are binary compounds, those containing only two elements, but we will also consider how to name ionic compounds containing polyatomic ions, and one specific, very important class of compounds known as acids (subsequent discussion in this text will focus on these compounds in great detail). We will limit our attention here to inorganic compounds, compounds that are composed principally of elements other than carbon, and will follow the nomenclature guidelines proposed by IUPAC. The rules for organic compounds, in which carbon is the principle element, will be treated in chapter 20.

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). Some examples are given in Table 5.4.1.

Table 5.4.1. Names of Some Ionic Compounds
[latex]\ce{NaCl}[/latex], sodium chloride [latex]\ce{Na2O}[/latex], sodium oxide
[latex]\ce{KBr}[/latex], potassium bromide [latex]\ce{CdS}[/latex], cadmium sulfide
[latex]\ce{CaI2}[/latex], calcium iodide [latex]\ce{Mg3N2}[/latex], magnesium nitride
[latex]\ce{CsF}[/latex], cesium fluoride [latex]\ce{Ca3P2}[/latex], calcium phosphide
[latex]\ce{LiCl}[/latex], lithium chloride [latex]\ce{Al4C3}[/latex], aluminum carbide

Compounds Containing Polyatomic Ions

Compounds containing polyatomic ions are named similarly to those containing only monatomic ions, except there is no need to change to an –ide ending, since the suffix is already present in the name of the anion. Examples are shown in Table 5.4.2.

Table 5.4.2. Names of Some Polyatomic Ionic Compounds
[latex]\ce{KC2H3O2}[/latex], potassium acetate [latex]\ce{(NH4)Cl}[/latex], ammonium chloride
[latex]\ce{NaHCO3}[/latex], sodium bicarbonate [latex]\ce{CaSO4}[/latex], calcium sulfate
[latex]\ce{Al2(CO3)3}[/latex], aluminum carbonate [latex]\ce{Mg3(PO4)_2}[/latex], magnesium phosphate

Ionic Compounds in Your Cabinets

Every day you encounter and use a large number of ionic compounds. Some of these compounds, where they are found, and what they are used for are listed in Table 5.4.3. Look at the label or ingredients list on the various products that you use during the next few days, and see if you run into any of those in this table, or find other ionic compounds that you could now name or write as a formula.

Table 5.4.3. Everyday Ionic Compounds
Ionic Compound Use
[latex]\ce{NaCl}[/latex], sodium chloride ordinary table salt
[latex]\ce{KI}[/latex], potassium iodide added to “iodized” salt for thyroid health
[latex]\ce{NaF}[/latex], sodium fluoride ingredient in toothpaste
[latex]\ce{NaHCO3}[/latex], sodium bicarbonate baking soda; used in cooking (and as antacid)
[latex]\ce{Na2CO3}[/latex], sodium carbonate washing soda; used in cleaning agents
[latex]\ce{NaOCl}[/latex], sodium hypochlorite active ingredient in household bleach
[latex]\ce{CaCO3}[/latex] calcium carbonate ingredient in antacids
[latex]\ce{Mg(OH)2}[/latex], magnesium hydroxide ingredient in antacids
[latex]\ce{Al(OH)3}[/latex], aluminum hydroxide ingredient in antacids
[latex]\ce{NaOH}[/latex], sodium hydroxide lye; used as drain cleaner
[latex]\ce{K3PO5}[/latex], potassium phosphate food additive (many purposes)
[latex]\ce{MgSO4}[/latex], magnesium sulfate added to purified water
[latex]\ce{Na2HPO4}[/latex], sodium hydrogen phosphate anti-caking agent; used in powdered products
[latex]\ce{Na2SO3}[/latex], sodium sulfite preservative

Compounds Containing a Metal Ion with a Variable Charge

Most of the transition 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+ (see Molecular and Ionic Compounds), and the two corresponding compound formulas are [latex]\ce{FeCl2}[/latex] and [latex]\ce{FeCl3}[/latex]. 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. Other examples are provided in Table 5.4.4.

Table 5.4.4 Names of Some Transition Metal Ionic Compounds
Transition Metal Ionic Compound Name
[latex]\ce{FeCl2}[/latex] iron(II) chloride
[latex]\ce{FeCl3}[/latex] iron(III) chloride
[latex]\ce{Hg2O}[/latex] mercury(I) oxide
[latex]\ce{HgO}[/latex] mercury(II) oxide
[latex]\ce{SnF2}[/latex] tin(II) flouride
[latex]\ce{SnF4}[/latex] tin(IV) flouride

Out-of-date nomenclature used the suffixes –ic and –ous to designate metals with higher and lower charges, respectively: Iron(III) chloride, [latex]\ce{FeCl3}[/latex], was previously called ferric chloride, and iron(II) chloride, [latex]\ce{FeCl2}[/latex], 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 [latex]\ce{SnF2}[/latex], which is more properly named tin(II) fluoride. The other fluoride of tin is [latex]\ce{SnF4}[/latex], which was previously called stannic fluoride but is now named tin(IV) fluoride.

A flow chart for naming ion compounds formed between metals and nonmetals. 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). When a metal forms more than one type of ion then you name the cation, metal, followed by the Roman numeral in parenthesis followed by the name of the anon with the ending -ide. Example McCl2 would be manganese(II) chloride.
Figure 5.4.1 Flow chart for naming Ionic compounds.

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 (see Table 5.4.5) 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

[latex]\text{copper(II) sulfate pentahydrate }\ce{ CuSO}_{4}\cdot{5}\ce{H2O}[/latex]

[latex]\text{sodium carbonate decahydrate }\ce{Na2CO3}\cdot{10}\ce{H2O}[/latex]

Table 5.4.5 Nomenclature Prefixes
Number Prefix Number Prefix
1 (sometimes omitted) mono- 6 hexa-
2 di- 7 hepta-
3 tri- 8 octa-
4 tetra- 9 nona-
5 penta- 10 deca-

Example 5.4.1: Naming Ionic Compounds

Name the following ionic compounds, which contain a metal that can have more than one ionic charge:

  1. [latex]\ce{Fe2S3}[/latex]
  2. [latex]\ce{CuSe}[/latex]
  3. [latex]\ce{GaN}[/latex]
  4. [latex]\ce{MgSO4}\cdot\ce{7H2O}[/latex]
  5. [latex]\ce{Ti2(SO4)_3}[/latex]
Show Solution

The anions in these compounds have a fixed negative charge ([latex]\ce{S^2-}[/latex], [latex]\ce{Se^2-}[/latex], [latex]\ce{N^3-}[/latex], and [latex]\ce{SO4^2-}[/latex]), and the compounds must be neutral. Because the total number of positive charges in each compound must equal the total number of negative charges, the positive ions must be [latex]\ce{Fe^3+}[/latex], [latex]\ce{Cu^2+}[/latex], [latex]\ce{Ga^3+}[/latex], [latex]\ce{Mg^2+}[/latex], and [latex]\ce{Ti^3+}[/latex]. These charges are used in the names of the metal ions:

  1. iron(III) sulfide
  2. copper(II) selenide
  3. gallium(III) nitride
  4. magnesium sulfate heptahydrate
  5. titanium(III) sulfate

Check Your Learning

Erin Brokovich and Chromium Contamination

In the early 1990s, legal file clerk Erin Brockovich (Figure 5.4.2) discovered a high rate of serious illnesses in the small town of Hinckley, California. Her investigation eventually linked the illnesses to groundwater contaminated by Cr(VI) used by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to fight corrosion in a nearby natural gas pipeline. As dramatized in the film Erin Brokovich (for which Julia Roberts won an Oscar), Erin and lawyer Edward Masry sued PG&E for contaminating the water near Hinckley in 1993. The settlement they won in 1996—$333 million—was the largest amount ever awarded for a direct-action lawsuit in the US at that time.

Figure A shows a photo of Erin Brockovich. Figure B shows a 3-D ball-and-stick model of chromate. Chromate has a chromium atom at its center that forms bonds with four oxygen atoms each. Two of the oxygen atoms form single bonds with the chromium atom while the other two form double bonds each. The structure of dichromate consists of two chromate ions that are bonded and share one of their oxygen atoms to which each chromate atom has a single bond.
Figure 5.4.2. (a) Erin Brockovich found that Cr(IV), used by PG&E, had contaminated the Hinckley, California, water supply. (b) The Cr(VI) ion is often present in water as the polyatomic ions chromate, [latex]\ce{CrO4^2-}[/latex] (left), and dichromate, [latex]\ce{Cr2O7^2-}[/latex] (right).

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.

Covalent 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 [latex]\ce{CO}[/latex] and [latex]\ce{CO2}[/latex]. 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. The numbers of atoms of each element are designated by the Greek prefixes shown in above in Table 5.4.5.

When only one atom of the first element is present, the prefix mono– is usually deleted from that part. Thus, [latex]\ce{CO}[/latex] is named carbon monoxide, and [latex]\ce{CO2}[/latex] is called carbon dioxide. When two vowels are adjacent, the a in the Greek prefix is usually dropped. Some other examples are shown in Table 5.4.6.

Table 5.4.6. Names of Some Molecular Compounds Composed of Two Elements
Compound Name Compound Name
[latex]\ce{SO2}[/latex] sulfur dioxide [latex]\ce{BCl3}[/latex] boron trichloride
[latex]\ce{SO3}[/latex] sulfur trioxide [latex]\ce{SF6}[/latex] sulfur hexafluoride
[latex]\ce{NO2}[/latex] nitrogen dioxide [latex]\ce{PF5}[/latex] phosphorus pentafluoride
[latex]\ce{N2O4}[/latex] dinitrogen tetroxide [latex]\ce{P4O{10}}[/latex] tetraphosphorus decaoxide
[latex]\ce{N2O5}[/latex] dinitrogen pentoxide [latex]\ce{IF7}[/latex] iodine heptafluoride

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

Flow chart for naming molecular compounds formed between nonmetals. You use the prefix followed by the name of the 1st elements prefix of element 2 followed by the base name of the second element and ending in -ide. Example N2O5 would be dinitrogen pentoxide.
Figure 5.4.2 Flow chart for naming Molecular compounds.

Example 5.4.2: Naming Covalent Compounds

Name the following covalent compounds:

  1. [latex]\ce{SF6}[/latex]
  2. [latex]\ce{N2O3}[/latex]
  3. [latex]\ce{Cl2O7}[/latex]
  4. [latex]\ce{P4O6}[/latex]
Show Solution

Because these compounds consist solely of nonmetals, we use prefixes to designate the number of atoms of each element:

  1. sulfur hexafluoride
  2. dinitrogen trioxide
  3. dichlorine heptoxide
  4. tetraphosphorus hexoxide

Check Your Learning

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, but for now, it will suffice to note that many acids release hydrogen ions, [latex]\ce{H+}[/latex], 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 [latex]\ce{HCl}[/latex] (hydrogen chloride) is dissolved in water, the solution is called hydrochloric acid. Several other examples of this nomenclature are shown in Table 5.4.7.

Table 5.4.7 Names of Some Simple Acids
Name of Gas Name of Acid
[latex]\ce{HF}[/latex](g), hydrogen fluoride [latex]\ce{HF}[/latex](aq), hydrofluoric acid
[latex]\ce{HCl}[/latex](g), hydrogen chloride [latex]\ce{HCl}[/latex](aq), hydrochloric acid
[latex]\ce{HBr}[/latex](g), hydrogen bromide [latex]\ce{HBr}[/latex](aq), hydrobromic acid
[latex]\ce{HI}[/latex](g), hydrogen iodide [latex]\ce{HI}[/latex](aq), hydroiodic acid
[latex]\ce{H2S}[/latex](g), hydrogen sulfide [latex]\ce{H2S}[/latex](aq), hydrosulfuric acid


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 later). 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 [latex]\ce{H2CO3}[/latex] (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. Other examples are given in Table 5.4.8. There are some exceptions to the general naming method (e.g., [latex]\ce{H2SO4}[/latex] is called sulfuric acid, not sulfic acid, and [latex]\ce{H2SO3}[/latex] is sulfurous, not sulfous, acid).

Table 5.4.8. Names of Common Oxyacids
Formula Anion Name Acid Name
[latex]\ce{HC2H3O2}[/latex] acetate acetic acid
[latex]\ce{HNO3}[/latex] nitrate nitric acid
[latex]\ce{HNO2}[/latex] nitrite nitrous acid
[latex]\ce{HClO4}[/latex] perchlorate perchloric acid
[latex]\ce{H2CO3}[/latex] carbonate carbonic acid
[latex]\ce{H2SO4}[/latex] sulfate sulfuric acid
[latex]\ce{H2SO3}[/latex] sulfite sulfurous acid
[latex]\ce{H3PO4}[/latex] phosphate phosphoric acid

If the compound is a binary acid (comprised of hydrogen and one other nonmetallic element): The word “hydrogen” is changed to the prefix hydro- The other nonmetallic element name is modified by adding the suffix -ic The word “acid” is added as a second word. Example HI would be Hydroiodic acid. oxyacids consist of hydrogen combined with a polyatomic, oxygen-containing ion. To name oxyacids: Omit “hydrogen” Start with the root name of the anion Replace –ate with –ic, or –ite with –ous Add “acid”. Example HNO3 would be nitric acid and HClO2 would be Chlorous acid.
Figure 5.4.4 Flow chart for naming Acids.

Key Concepts and Summary

Figure 5.4.5 This is a combined chart showing how to name ionic compounds, molecular compounds, and acids.

Try It

  1. Name the following compounds:
    1. [latex]\ce{CsCl}[/latex]
    2. [latex]\ce{BaO}[/latex]
    3. [latex]\ce{K2S}[/latex]
  2. Write the formulas of the following compounds:
    1. rubidium bromide
    2. magnesium selenide
    3. sodium oxide
  3. Write the formulas of the following compounds:
    1. chlorine dioxide
    2. dinitrogen tetraoxide
    3. potassium phosphide
  4. Each of the following compounds contains a metal that can exhibit more than one ionic charge. Name these compounds:
    1. [latex]\ce{Cr2O3}[/latex]
    2. [latex]\ce{FeCl2}[/latex]
    3. [latex]\ce{CrO3}[/latex]
  5. The following ionic compounds are found in common household products. Write the formulas for each compound:
    1. potassium phosphate
    2. copper(II) sulfate
    3. calcium chloride
Show Selected Solutions
  1. The answers are as follows:
    1. cesium chloride
    2. barium oxide
    3. potassium sulfide
  2. The answers are as follows:
    1. [latex]\ce{RbBr}[/latex]
    2. [latex]\ce{MgSe}[/latex]
    3. [latex]\ce{Na2O}[/latex]
  3. The answers are as follows:
    1. [latex]\ce{ClO2}[/latex]
    2. [latex]\ce{N2O4}[/latex]
    3. [latex]\ce{K3P}[/latex]
  4. The answers are as follows:
    1. chromium(III) oxide
    2. iron(II) chloride
    3. (c) chromium(VI) oxide
  5. The answers are as follows:
    1. [latex]\ce{K3PO4}[/latex]
    2. [latex]\ce{CuSO4}[/latex]
    3. [latex]\ce{CaCl2}[/latex]


binary acid: compound that contains hydrogen and one other element, bonded in a way that imparts acidic properties to the compound (ability to release [latex]\ce{H+}[/latex] ions when dissolved in water)

binary compound: compound containing two different elements.

nomenclature: system of rules for naming objects of interest

oxyacid: compound that contains hydrogen, oxygen, and one other element, bonded in a way that imparts acidic properties to the compound (ability to release [latex]\ce{H+}[/latex] ions when dissolved in water)

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