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Comment: Enabling a common language for chemistry

by Hayley Brown, chair, ACS Committee on Nomenclature, Terminology, and Symbols
September 9, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 30


Photo of Hayley Brown.
Credit: Dow
Hayley Brown

One of the most moving aspects of the sciences for me is the degree to which we’ve managed to get vastly disparate parts of humanity to agree to use a common language of chemistry. The world has agreed—actually agreed!—that it is altogether too bothersome and downright dangerous to risk misunderstanding or translation error in the education and practice of chemistry. That level of harmony is an absolute marvel. The American Chemical Society Committee on Nomenclature, Terminology, and Symbols (NTS) works to support and enable the common language for chemistry; it draws on a diverse body of members to deliver on multiple collaborations across the society and beyond to honor and advance that agreement. We educate about and facilitate and advocate the use of chemical representations that support universal understanding of chemistry.

Relevant nomenclature, terminology, and symbols must match progress in the field of chemistry. For several years, the NTS has enabled the broader International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) by participating in the public comment process for proposed guidelines. In 2022–23, the NTS provided feedback on Specification of International Chemical Identifier (InChI) QR Codes for Labels on Chemical Samples, Terminology for Chain Polymerization, and the Definition of the Pnictogen Bond. Driving agreement on new definitions, supporting standardization of terminology, and enabling more-robust and safer chemical labeling go to the heart of the committee’s mission.

The words and symbols we use to discuss chemical concepts inform the ways we think and shape those concepts.

The NTS strives to serve all chemists. That effort includes ensuring that resources for reference and education for standardized nomenclature and terminology are sound, easily found, and readily available. For instance, a need was highlighted in conjunction with the ACS Committee on Chemists with Disabilities to participate in the updating of the Braille Code for Chemical Notation. In 2017, NTS members and members of the chemistry subcommittee of the Braille Association of North America (BANA) began reviewing the current version of the documentation, which was released in 1997. Over the next 5 years, the two groups met regularly and developed a version that removed outdated symbols, provided revised rules and examples for transcribers, and included a new tactile graphics section. The final version is now with the BANA board for review, approval, and publication release.

Given this first successful effort with the braille language, the NTS began a second one to support chemistry nomenclature in American Sign Language (ASL). In 2019, the committee initiated a collaboration with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) and Rochester Institute of Technology to develop a set of chemistry resources in ASL. The first step is to produce videos of signs for the chemical elements, to be followed by videos of signs for the grammar and syntax for molecular formulas and full reactions. Initial resources for chemistry educators and practitioners are planned to be available for public review in 2024.

The words and symbols we use to discuss chemical concepts inform the ways we think and shape those concepts, and this interplay is being recognized and highlighted across the society. The NTS has cosponsored an array of technical programs at the ACS spring and fall meetings and is actively looking for additional ways to serve the society. Efforts to partner with textbook publishing houses on standardizing terminology and symbols are also underway.

As we look to an exciting future of advances in chemical research and technology, the shared language we use as chemists becomes increasingly paramount. Our strength as a discipline relies heavily on our ability to converse with one another, teach one another, and understand one another. If you want to engage more in the human drive toward a universal comprehension of chemistry through a common language for chemistry, I encourage you to reach out to us at and find out how to participate in the NTS.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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