Aluminum vs. aluminium?

Aluminum and aluminium are variant spellings of the same metallic element. Most of the world uses aluminium, though North American English prefers aluminum.

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What is the difference between aluminum and aluminium?

Have you ever studied the periodic table of elements and wondered why aluminum doesn’t end with an -ium like magnesium, chromium, or lithium? In fact, there are 71 atomic elements with names ending in -ium, whereas only five elements end with -um.

The use of “-um” over “-ium” has been a source of much debate since the early 19th century. However, the spelling of “aluminum” is isolated to English speakers in the United States and Canada. The rest of the world (often attributed as “British English”) spells the noun as “aluminium.” 

The discovery and naming of aluminum

Like most scientific feats, the discovery of aluminum was not a sole discovery. The element was researched by many individuals, such as: 

  • German chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709–1782)
  • Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted (1777–1851)
  • German chemist Friedrich Wöhler (1800–1882)
  • French chemist Henri Etienne Sainte-Claire Deville (1818–1881)

Even with these incredible minds combined, the credit of discovering the metallic element is shared amongst several unnamed scientists. Still, none of the founding researchers wound up naming the element “aluminium” or “aluminum” (they often called it “alum” or “alumina”).  

The use of “aluminum” emerged thanks to English chemist Sir Humphry Davy, whose 1808 Electrochemical Researches of the Decomposition of the Earths first describes the metal as “alumium.” Davy’s initial term combines Latin alumina with the suffix -ium, although he later switched to using “alumine” in 1810 and “aluminum” in 1812. 

Around the same time, Brit. scientist, Thomas Young, wrote a review of Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy, criticizing his recent name for having a “less classical sound.” The review suggested “aluminium” instead, which follows the pattern of Davy’s other element names, such as barium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and strontium. 

Since 1812, “aluminium” has been the preferred international spelling, although English from parts of North America didn’t follow suit. Early records of American coinage stem back to 1828, where Noah Webster (co-founder of Merriam Webster’s Dictionary) lists “aluminum” as the standard spelling for American English. 

Then, in 1925, The American Chemical Society (ACS) declared “aluminum” as the official American spelling. But they were pretty much on their own. Although the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) didn’t standardize “aluminium” until 1990, the rest of the English-speaking world stood by the latter spelling. 

Is there a method to naming new atomic elements?

According to the IUPAC, whoever discovers an element has the right to name it (under specific guidelines, that is). Names for novel elements need to meet two criteria: 

  1. “Elements can be named after a mythological concept, a mineral, a place or country, a property or a scientist.”
  2. “The names of all new elements should have an ending that reflects and maintains historical and chemical consistency.” 

The second rule is a bit confusing, so here’s a quick breakdown: 

  • The periodic table consists of 16 groups that are listed above individual columns. 
  • The novel elements that belong in groups 1-16 need to end with “-ium” (e.g., barium, iridium, or thallium), while elements under group 17 end with “-ine” (e.g., chlorine, iodine, and bromine). 
  • All elements that fall under group 18 need to end with “-on” (such as Neon, Krypton, and Radon). 

So, there you have it. The naming elements are not quite like Latin’s binomial nomenclature and instead use names agreed by IUPAC members.

How many elements share similar names?

Elements ending with -ium are the most common on the periodic table of elements, while names ending with “-on” (e.g., carbon, boron, iron) are the next most abundant. The next most common name ending is “-ine,” with the five elements of fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and astatine. 

There are several element names without an apparent nomenclature structure, but the reasoning is more obvious than you think. You see, long before the advent of modern science, ancient humans already had names for certain elements. Elements discovered before the common era include copper, lead, gold, silver, iron, carbon, tin, sulfur, mercury, and zinc. 

Humans discovered arsenic, antimony, and bismuth after the common era, but their discoveries still took place long ago. Modern observation and isolation of the remaining elements began in 1669 and has since allowed us to predict and create unnaturally occurring, novel elements. For example, plutonium didn’t emerge until the 1940s, while Tennessine appeared in 2009. 

What is aluminum?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the word aluminum (or “aluminium”) is a noun that describes the ‘chemical element of atomic number 13, a light silvery-grey metal’ (“aluminum” 48). The official symbol for aluminum is Al, and you can find it under group 13 on the periodic table. 

Aluminum is not an alkaline metal or a transition metal, but it is often listed as a post-transition metal. The designation indicates that an element is made of a soft or brittle material, provides poor mechanical strength, and has a lower melting point than a transition metal. But despite these negative-sounding properties, aluminum is actually pretty cool. 

Aluminum is the most abundant metal found in the earth’s crust (via bauxite), and we prize the metal for its lightness, high conductivity, and corrosion-resistant alloys. You’re probably already familiar with aluminum’s valued properties through aluminum foil or soda cans, which are one of the few waste products we can wash and recycle (unlike many plastics or soiled paper products). 

Etymology of aluminum

The word aluminum (or aluminium) is an early 19th-century noun that combines alumina + ium, where French alumina references an oxide of aluminum, and alumine stems from Latin alumen or alum (the chemical compound containing aluminum). 

How to use aluminum and aluminium in a sentence?

English writers can spell the noun aluminum as aluminium, but it’s always best to keep your audience in mind. If your target reader is Canadian or American, use “aluminum” (especially for formal settings). 

For example:

  • “No carmaker had ever committed to using aluminum so widely in such a high-volume, high-profile vehicle.” — The New York Times
  • Aluminum, used in everything from jet engines to electric vehicles, has surged more than 40% from its May lows…” — The Wall Street Journal

For all other English speaking countries, be sure to write aluminium instead. 

Examples include: 

  • “The aluminium and plastics sectors have proved resilient during the coronavirus crisis but need to do more…” — Reuters 
  • “…the Luma Arles will be true to form, looking like a big scaly crumpled aluminium tornado grafted on to a glass and stone box.” — The Guardian

*Note: The second example uses “aluminium” as an adjective to describe artwork made from metal. 

Additional reading: aluminum vs. aluminium

If you enjoy learning about American and British English spelling variants, be sure to read The Word Counter’s grammar lessons on topics, such as:

Test Yourself!

Test how much you’ve learned about aluminum and aluminium with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: British chemist Sir Humphry Davy discovered aluminum.
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The preferred spelling of “aluminium” occurs with _____________.
    a. Canadian English
    b. British English
    c. American English
    d. Any English outside of Canada and the United States
  3. What is the symbol for aluminum on the periodic table of elements? 
    a. Ag
    b. Al
    c. As
    d. Au
  4. English speakers can use the word aluminum as a ____________. 
    a. Adjective
    b. Verb
    c. Noun
    d. A and C
  5. Which of the following is not a property of aluminum? 
    a. High conductivity
    b. Resistance to corrosion 
    c. Alkalinity
    d. Lightweight

Answers

  1. B
  2. D
  3. B
  4. D
  5. C

Sources

  1. Aluminum.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2021. 
  2. “Aluminum.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 48.
  3. Boudette, N.E. “Ford Bet on Aluminum Trucks, but Is Still Looking for Payoff.” The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 1 Mar 2018. 
  4. Davy, H (1812). “Elements of Chemical Philosophy.” J. Johnson and Company, Google Books, 19 Dec 2008. 
  5. Jones, J, et al. “Brutal Bacon, wild Gehry and unmissable Abramovic.” The Guardian, TheGuardian.com, 31 Dec 2020.
  6. Periodic Table of Elements: LANL.” Los Alamos National Laboratory,  U.S. Department of Energy’s NNSA, 29 Feb 2016.
  7. Reedjik, J. “How to name new chemical elements.” International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, IUPAC.org, 2016. 
  8. Reuters Staff. “Pandemic sharpens sustainability focus in plastics and aluminium.” Reuters, Reuters.com, 11 Jan 2021. 
  9. Richards, J. W. (1896). “Aluminium: Its history, occurrence, properties, metallurgy and applications, including its alloys.” Henry Carey Baird & Co., Archive.org, n.d.
  10. Verlaine, J. “Aluminum Prices Push Toward 2020 High on Sanction Worries, Demand.” The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com, 18 Dec 2020. 
  11. Young, Thomas (1812). “Elements of Chemical Philosophy By Sir Humphry Davy.” The Quarterly Review, Google Books, n.d.