More Tricky Chemistry Writing Conventions

  • The field of chemistry includes some unique conventions with abbreviations.
  • Pronounce elements as though they are written out, not based on their abbreviation.
  • Pronounce isotope number second, even if written in front of the symbol.
  • Avoid superscript or subscript when describing an atom’s position.

Note: this article builds on two others describing how to format chemical prefixes and how to capitalize chemical compounds.

Chemical elements have standardized one- or two-letter abbreviations (as seen on the periodic table), but how are these used in scientific manuscripts? Here are a couple of conventions to keep in mind when writing or editing your next chemistry manuscript.


Even when the abbreviation is used within a sentence, the element’s name is treated as though it is being pronounced. Therefore, choose the right article to precede the element symbol based on the pronunciation of the element name.

  • a Au electrode
  • a He-Ne laser
  • an Sb-containing compound
  • an O sensor


When the element abbreviation is used, the isotope number is written first. However, the isotope name or symbol is pronounced first; the article that precedes the term is therefore not based on the number.

  • a 14C isotope
  • an 127I isotope


Note that when describing atoms in a specific position, do not use superscript or subscript:

  • at the carbon in the 6-position
  • at C6 or at C-6
  • the atom in the β-position

We hope that today’s post helps clear up any confusion with element abbreviations. As always, if you have any questions, let us know by email ([email protected]). Best wishes!

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