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Classifying Elements

Classifying Elements on the Periodic Table

Many elements differ dramatically in their chemical and physical properties, but some elements are similar in their behaviors. For example, many elements appear shiny, are malleable (able to be deformed without breaking) and ductile (can be drawn into wires), and conduct heat and electricity well. Other elements are not shiny, malleable, or ductile, and are poor conductors of heat and electricity.

Sorting into Metals, Nonmetals and Metalloids

We can sort the elements into large classes with common properties: metals (elements that are shiny, malleable, good conductors of heat and electricity—shaded yellow); nonmetals (elements that appear dull, poor conductors of heat and electricity—shaded green); and metalloids (elements that conduct heat and electricity moderately well, and possess some properties of metals and some properties of nonmetals—shaded purple).

Further Classification of Elements

The elements can also be classified into the main-group elements (or representative elements) in the columns labeled 1, 2, and 13–18; the transition metals in the columns labeled 3–12; and inner transition metals in the two rows at the bottom of the table (the top-row elements are called lanthanides and the bottom-row elements are actinides; see figure below).


The periodic table organizes elements with similar properties into groups. Image credit: OpenStax, Chemistry

The elements can be subdivided further by more specific properties, such as the composition of the compounds they form. For example, the elements in group 1 (the first column) form compounds that consist of one atom of the element and one atom of hydrogen. These elements (except hydrogen) are known as alkali metals, and they all have similar chemical properties. The elements in group 2 (the second column) form compounds consisting of one atom of the element and two atoms of hydrogen: These are called alkaline earth metals, with similar properties among members of that group.

Other groups with specific names are the pnictogens (group 15), chalcogens (group 16), halogens (group 17), and the noble gases (group 18, also known as inert gases). The groups can also be referred to by the first element of the group: For example, the chalcogens can be called the oxygen group or oxygen family. Hydrogen is a unique, nonmetallic element with properties similar to both group 1 and group 17 elements. For that reason, hydrogen may be shown at the top of both groups, or by itself.

You might be interested in the Royal Society of Chemistry website which provides an interactive periodic table, which you can use to explore the properties of the elements and includes podcasts and videos of each element.

Naming Groups of Elements

Atoms of each of the following elements are essential for life. Give the group name for the following elements:

(a) chlorine
(b) calcium
(c) sodium
(d) sulfur


The family names are as follows:

(a) halogen
(b) alkaline earth metal
(c) alkali metal
(d) chalcogen

In studying the periodic table, you might have noticed something about the atomic masses of some of the elements. Element 43 (technetium), element 61 (promethium), and most of the elements with atomic number 84 (polonium) and higher have their atomic mass given in square brackets.

This is done for elements that consist entirely of unstable, radioactive isotopes (you will learn more about radioactivity as you study nuclear chemistry). An average atomic weight cannot be determined for these elements because their radioisotopes may vary significantly in relative abundance, depending on the source, or may not even exist in nature. The number in square brackets is the atomic mass number (and approximate atomic mass) of the most stable isotope of that element.

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