What Is a Word Equation?

A Word Equation States the Reactants and Products in a Chemical Reaction by Names Rather Than Formulas.
Westend61 / Getty Images

In chemistry, a word equation is a chemical reaction expressed in words rather than chemical formulas. A word equation should state the reactants (starting materials), products (ending materials), and direction of the reaction in a form that could be used to write a chemical equation.

There are some key words to watch for when reading or writing a word equation. The words "and" or "plus" mean one chemical and another are both reactants or products. The phrase "is reacted with" indicates the chemicals are reactants. If you say "forms", "makes", or "yields", it means the following substances are products.

When you write a chemical equation from a word equation, the reactants always go on the lefthand side of the equation, while the reactants are on the righthand side. This is true even if the products are listed before the reactants in the word equation.

Word Equation Examples

The chemical reaction 2 H2(g) + O2(g) → 2 H2O(g) would be expressed as:

hydrogen gas + oxygen gas → steam

As a word equation or as "Hydrogen and oxygen react to form water" or "Water is made by reacting hydrogen and oxygen."

While a word equation doesn't ordinarily include numbers or symbols (Example: You wouldn't say "Two H two and one O two makes two H two O", sometimes it is necessary to use a number to indicate the oxidation state of a reactant so that a person writing a chemical equation can do it correctly. This is mostly for the transition metals, which can have multiple oxidation states.

For example, in the reaction between copper and oxygen to form copper oxide, the chemical formula of copper oxide and the number of copper and oxygen atoms involved depends on whether copper(I) or copper(II) participates in the reaction. In this case, it would be fine to say:

copper + oxygen → copper(II) oxide


Copper reacts with oxygen to produce copper two oxide.

The (unbalanced) chemical equation for the reaction would start out as:

Cu + O2 → CuO

Balancing the the equation yields:

2Cu + O2 → 2CuO

You would get a different equation and product formula using copper(I):

Cu + O2 → Cu2O

4Cu + O2 → 2Cu2O

More examples of word reactions include:

  • Chlorine gas reacts with methane and carbon tetrachloride to produce hydrogen chloride.
  • Adding sodium oxide to water produces sodium hydroxide.
  • Iodine crystals and chlorine gas react to make solid iron and carbon dioxide gas.
  • Zinc and lead two nitrate make zinc nitrate and lead metal.
    which means: Zn + Pb (NO3)2 → Zn(NO3)2 + Pb

Why Use Word Equations?

When you're learning general chemistry, work equations are used to help introduce the concepts of reactants, products, the direction of reactions, and to help you understand precision of language. They may seem annoying, but are a good introduction to the thought processes required for chemistry courses. In any chemical reaction, you need to be able to identify the chemical species that react with each other and what they make.