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Word Equations

Using words to describe chemical reactions

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Word Equations

Cookbooks are similar to chemical word equations

Credit: User:Daderot/Wikimedia Commons
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Innsbruck_-_Schloss_Ambras_-_cookbook_of_Philippine_Welser.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

What’s for dinner?

Various ways of recording recipes have developed over the centuries. The cookbook shown above was written by a woman who probably collected all her own recipes. Later, printed cookbooks became available (even guys had no excuse for not being able to cook). Today we can find recipes on a number of internet sites and can quickly search for information on how to cook anything we want. Reading a recipe sometimes requires we understand a few codes and symbols (what’s the difference between a tsp and a Tsp?), but the information on what we start with and what we end up with is there.

Writing Chemical Equations

Chemical reactions are occurring all around you. Plants use sunlight to drive their photosynthetic process and produce energy. Cars and other vehicles burn gasoline in order to power their engines. Batteries use electrochemical reactions to produce energy and power many everyday devices. Many chemical reactions are going on inside you as well, especially during the digestion of food.

In math class, you have written and solved many mathematical equations. Chemists keep track of chemical reactions by writing equations as well. In any chemical reaction one or more substances, called reactants, are converted into one or more new substances, called products. The general form of the equation for such a process looks like this.

\begin{align*}\text{Reactants} \rightarrow \text{Products}\end{align*}

Unlike in a math equation, a chemical equation does not use an equal sign. Instead the arrow is called a yield sign and so the equation is described as “reactants yield products”.

Word Equations

You can describe a chemical reaction by writing a word equation. When silver metal is exposed to sulfur it reacts to form silver sulfide. Silver sulfide is commonly known as tarnish and turns the surface of silver objects dark and streaky black (see Figure below). The sulfur that contributes to tarnish can come from traces of sulfur in the air or from food such as eggs. The word equation for the process is:

\begin{align*}\text{Silver} + \text{sulfur} \rightarrow \text{Silver sulfide}\end{align*}

The silver and the sulfur are the reactants in the equation, while the silver sulfide is the product.

Tarnished silver contains silver sulfide

Credit: mage copyright Keith McIntyre, 2014
Source: http://www.shutterstock.com
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

The coffee percolator on the left has been tarnished from exposure to sulfur. Tarnish is the chemical compound silver sulfide. The same percolator on the right has been polished with a tarnish removal product in order to restore its silver finish.[Figure2]

Another common chemical reaction is the burning of methane gas. Methane is the major component of natural gas and is commonly burned on a gas stove or in a Bunsen burner (see Figure below). Burning is a chemical reaction in which some type of fuel is reacted with oxygen gas. The products of the reaction in the burning of methane as well as other fuels are carbon dioxide and water. The word equation for this reaction is:

\begin{align*}\text{Methane}+\text{oxygen} \rightarrow \text{carbon dioxide}+\text{water}\end{align*}

A Bunsen burner reacts methane with oxygen to form water and carbon dioxide

Credit: Image copyright ggw1962, 2014
Source: http://www.shutterstock.com
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

A Bunsen burner is commonly used to heat substances in a chemistry lab. Methane is reacted with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water.[Figure3]

Word equations can be very useful, but do have one major drawback. They cannot be used for any quantitative work. A word equation does not tell how many moles of each material are needed or how many moles of product are formed.


  • Word equations are used to describe the conversion of reactants to products.


  1. Write the generic form of a chemical reaction.
  2. What are reactants?
  3. What are products?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: User:Daderot/Wikimedia Commons; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Innsbruck_-_Schloss_Ambras_-_cookbook_of_Philippine_Welser.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: mage copyright Keith McIntyre, 2014; Source: http://www.shutterstock.com; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  3. [3]^ Credit: Image copyright ggw1962, 2014; Source: http://www.shutterstock.com; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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