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Naming Acids

Definition and rules for naming acids

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Naming Acids

Acid is used to test the identity of gold

Credit: Image copyright Zenphotography, 2014
Source: http://www.shutterstock.com
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

How is gold tested?

A spot test for gold has been in use for decades.  The sample is first treated with nitric acid.  Other metals may react or dissolve in this acid, but gold will not.  Then the sample is added to a mixture of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid.  Gold will only dissolve in this mixture.  The term “acid test” arose from the California gold rush in the late 1840s when this combination was used to test for the presence of real gold.  It has since come to mean, “tested and approved” in a number of fields.


An acid can be defined in several ways.  The most straightforward definition is that an acid is a molecular compound that contains one or more hydrogen atoms and produces hydrogen ions (H+) when dissolved in water

Vinegar contains acetic acid, grapefruit contains ascorbic and citric acid

Credit: (A) Becky Cortino; (B) Flickr: isox4
Source: (A) http://www.flickr.com/photos/mediasavvy/8239231530/; (B) http://www.flickr.com/photos/isox4/5167980026/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

(A) Vinegar comes in a variety of types, but all contain acetic acid. (B) Citrus fruits like grapefruit contain citric and ascorbic acids.[Figure2]

This is a different type of compound than the others we have seen so far.  Acids are molecular, which means that in their pure state they are individual molecules and do not adopt the extended three-dimensional structures of ionic compounds like NaCl.  However, when these molecules are dissolved in water, the chemical bond between the hydrogen atom and the rest of the molecule breaks, leaving a positively-charged hydrogen ion and an anion.  This can be symbolized in a chemical equation:

HCl → H+ + Cl-

Naming Acids

Naming System for Acids

Anion Suffix


Name of Acid



chloride (Cl-)

hydro_____ic acid

hydrochloric acid (HCl)


sulfate (SO42-)

_____ic acid

sulfuric acid (H2SO4)


nitrite (NO2-)

_____ous acid

nitrous acid (HNO2)

The three different suffixes that are possible for the anions lead to the three rules below.

  1. When the anion ends in –ide, the acid name begins with the prefix hydro-. The root of the anion name goes in the blank (chlor for chloride), followed by the suffix –ic. HCl is hydrochloric acid because Cl- is the chloride ion. HCN is hydrocyanic acid because CN- is the cyanide ion.
  2. When the anion ends in –ate, the name of the acid is the root of the anion followed by the suffix –ic. There is no prefix. H2SO4 is sulfuric acid (not sulfic) because SO42- is the sulfate ion.
  3. When the anion ends in –ite, the name of the acid is the root of the anion followed by the suffix –ous. Again, there is no prefix. HNO2 is nitrous acid because NO2- is the nitrite ion.

Note how the root for a sulfur-containing oxoacid is sulfur- instead of just sulf-.  The same is true for a phosphorus-containing oxoacid.  The root is phosphor- instead of simply phosph-.

Many foods and beverages contain citric acid. Vinegar is a dilute solution of acetic acid. Car batteries contain sulfuric acid that helps in the release of electrons to create electricity.

Writing Formulas for Acids

Like other compounds that we have studied, acids are electrically neutral.  Therefore, the charge of the anion part of the formula must be exactly balanced out by the H+ ions.  Since H+ ions carry a single negative charge, the number of H+ ions in the formula is equal to the quantity of the negative charge on the anion.  Two examples from the table above illustrate this point.  The chloride ion carries a 1− charge, so only one H is needed in the formula of the acid (HCl).  The sulfate ion carries a 2− charge, so two H’s are needed in the formula of the acid (H2SO4).  Another way to think about writing the correct formula is to utilize the crisscross method, shown below for sulfuric acid.

How to write the formula for sulfuric acid

Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Joy Sheng
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Criss-cross approach to writing formula for sulfuric acid.[Figure3]


  • Acids are molecular compounds that release hydrogen ions.
  • A binary acid consists of hydrogen and one other element.
  • Oxoacids contain hydrogen, oxygen, and one other element.
  • The name of the acid is based on the anion attached to the hydrogen.
  • Writing formulas for acids follows the same rules as for binary ionic compounds.


  1. Define “acid.”
  2. What is a binary acid?
  3. What is an oxoacid?
  4. Name the following acids:
    1. H2SO4
    2. HCN
    3. HCl
    4. H3PO4
  5. Write formulas for the following acids:
    1. hydrobromic acid
    2. perchloric acid
    3. nitrous acid

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Image copyright Zenphotography, 2014; Source: http://www.shutterstock.com; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: (A) Becky Cortino; (B) Flickr: isox4; Source: (A) http://www.flickr.com/photos/mediasavvy/8239231530/; (B) http://www.flickr.com/photos/isox4/5167980026/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  3. [3]^ Credit: CK-12 Foundation - Joy Sheng; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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