Return of sulphur

Return of sulphur

Posted by Colin Cook on Mar 22, 2012 9:51 am

I have recently re-subscribed to Chemistry World after several months of refusing to accept the publication. My refusal had been as a protest against the Americanised spelling of sulphur that has become prevalent in the magazine, (with the notable exception of at least one advertisement that, we can assume, was allowed to use the British English spelling because the magazine respected the standards and intentions of the advertisers and the advert brought revenue into the magazine). My re-subscription began because I may be looking for work after July when I am being made redundant, so I needed access to the Jobs section. I will not be reading the articles, having regard for my health, particularly blood pressure.

I was dismayed to read that the RSC Nomenclature Committee in 1992 approved the American spelling, "sulfur". Regardless of its original spelling in Latin, sulphur had become the accepted spelling of the element in Britain and some other English-speaking nations such as Australia. By this I mean that sulphur was the spelling to be expected when reading a British English publication in those countries. This expectation appears to have been trampled by the aforementioned Committee without (as far as I know) any of the likely readers of such publications (including Chemistry World) having been consulted or asked to place a vote on the decision. This is clearly undemocratic. Readers’ expectations were violated, and readers responded quickly in anger on the Letters page of CW, the most succinct being "Sulfur! Fosforus?". More letters appeared, even as recently as last year, soon after the new editor, Bibiana Campos-Seijo took over. She replied to the protestor’s letter somewhat smugly, saying that since the IUPAC had approved the American spelling, this was the one the magazine was going to use. This response was in clear disregard for the wishes of the RSC membership, who are (in my opinion) a crowd that does not readily protest, thus making the small number of protests received by the editor the very small tip of a very big iceberg. I have no doubt that the majority of CW readers do not want to see their magazine using American spellings and are in silent fury at having to do so.

The decision of the IUPAC is without merit. They have no jurisdiction over the language (including the spelling) that any Nation State wishes to use on its home ground (or internationally), and that must include the Names (including the spelling) that the people of that State have used to identify these substances. For example, in Italy the name for sulphur is zolfo and in Greek is . The error that the IUPAC have made is that they think there is only one form of English, and that somehow the English spellings in the two countries of the USA and the UK must be made the same for chemical names, in case there is some kind of confusion (over what substance we are talking about, we assume). There are, clearly, more than two forms of English which (largely) share a common grammatical structure, and it is the names for things that largely differentiate between the different forms of English. Anyone who believes that an intelligent (i.e. chemistry-taught) person could be confused between sulphur and sulfur is barking mad. (Or at least, I would not place myself in the care of such a person or place my trust in their judgement.)

The IUPAC was set up to (we assume) standardise the systematic names for, principally, organic compounds, where the order, prefixes, numbering and parenthesis are critical for describing the substance unambiguously, so that it cannot be confused with another, similar, structure with quite different properties. All well and good. But, like many people with an important job to do, they go too far. We now have "Propanone" on bottles instead of "Acetone", and "Propan-2-ol" instead of isopropyl alcohol or isopropanol. [There is only one iso C3 alcohol that is not a cyclo compound (and named as such), so what is the point of splitting the name into an unwieldy sequence of syllables and numbers?] What is that all about, why change such names into something else? This is not progress, this is re-naming for the sake of it. We as chemists know the formula to these old names, and for anyone else who might not know them (a non-chemist), it is "hands off", because we as chemists uniquely know the hazards and can take steps to handle them safely. There is no mandate for everyone speaking the same language and using the same names for things; we should learn other languages where appropriate. Whatever standards are in place, even in English, the common useage will soon be complemented by some new name that someone invents and his or her friends adopt, and that subset of society who identify with the originators will begin to use that name if they prefer it. New names do not become standard, because there is no standard. English is a bastard language anyway, with sources all over the world, and the point of using one spelling (or useage) over another is that it expresses something extra. It seems to me only right and proper that research carried out in this country should use the traditional spellings of this country: it is a means of placing one’s mark on the work, and also as a clue to the country of origin. I guess that the IUPAC wanted to place its "mark" on chemical society by introducing this "f" spelling of sulphur; well, they have no right to any such thing, and they have no country to represent unless you accept the increasingly unworkable concept of "Europe". (At the same time, Americans should use the "Aluminum" spelling for the same reasons.)

These grey faceless people are threatening to take over, where all cultural diversity is to be discouraged to the bland uniformity of some "standard" based on what some beaurocrat decides is best. Personally, I have always loved Diversity, of both culture and substance,which I am sure is what attracted me to chemistry in the first place. We embrace (or so I thought until recently) the huge diversity of materials in nature, whereas physicists seem to sneer at it, always trying to remove troublesome diversity by attempting to obtain a Theory of Everything, where all of our wonderful universe can be explained in one equation. It has been said that "Anything that can be put into a nutshell should stay there." Famous physicists have come up with some telling statements like (and I copy from Wikipedia):

Developing classification schemes for hadrons became a burning question after new experimental techniques uncovered so many of them that it became clear that they could not all be elementary. These discoveries led Wolfgang Pauli to exclaim "Had I foreseen that, I would have gone into botany," and Enrico Fermi to advise his student Leon Lederman: "Young man, if I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist."

Botanists embrace such diversity, but maybe chemists, envious of physicists’ status as popularisers of science and discoverers of fundamental truths, and of their public budgets (cf the Large Hadron Collider), would like to place themselves / ourselves as far away from botanists as possible and as close to physicists as possible, hoping to bask in their reflected glory perhaps?

The IUPAC is guilty of snobbery, poo-pooing such names as the wonderfully poetic "Muriatic Acid" or "Salts of Sorrel". What on earth is wrong with a few extra names? Even before the internet, if a student of chemistry came across these names, he or she could have enjoyed an informative diversion by looking them up in a library book. Moreover, these old names carry extra information that point towards new knowledge. Look for example at salts of sorrel, potassium oxalate: the name indicates a natural source. That type of "link" (a pre-computer type of hyperlink) can point a student to some interesting reading where much more than the original subject can be learned, thus broadening the mind. Or is the acquisition of an expansive awareness to be discouraged these days?

I got this feeling at my RSC interview for my current grade of Member. When I mentioned that I was studying Paul Karrer’s wonderful book on Organic Chemistry, one of my interviewers said something like, "There are more modern works, you know", as if to say that there was something not quite proper about works that embrace diversity. Or that modern works were better, presumably in terms of some orbital theory (physics again), or information more likely to please a modern examiner, who might consider his neck exposed if he expresses anything like love for the subject and not a mute adherence to the doctrines of modernity. Don’t get me wrong, the Schrodinger equation is beautiful, but for a Physical Chemistry lecturer in 1968 to tell a class of students including a 19 year old (me) in 1968, that they had to learn how to derive the equation, was totally ridiculous. (He could have been better advised to demonstrate the rapid rearrangement of electron orbitals by just popping some soap bubbles. Okay, the shapes are different but the principles are similar.) I wanted to learn chemistry, not Applied Mathematics. I dropped the Higher National Certificate course, decided to teach myself chemistry, and was lucky enough to be able to do so working for J.A. Radley Laboratories and others up to the present day. I have been successful in obtaining MRSC and CCHEM precisely because of my love for the subject and my constant reading of it, and this is the only subject where I can beat the University Challenge contestants for speed to the answers, and often the answer itself. From my experience of working with chemistry graduates in several establishments, their love of the subject does not exactly shine out, and it is real shame for this country of Britain. The resources are out there, and the resources are the appropriate knowledge, and no amount of studying the Schrodinger equation will ever result in anything new being created (other than by physicists, and only then with a big computer and lots of time to wait). Okay, I’ve drifted away from my main topic, but the Joy of Chemistry is about diversity, not simpification, and we should embrace a diverse nomenclature too.

I hope that publishing this discussion in a forum lets the affected members know that they are not alone, and adds to our justification for choosing our original spelling. If they can do so without endangering their positions, the affected members could add their voice to this forum. Where there is fear about protesting, I have this re-assurance:

It is not a law of the country of the United Kingdom to write "sulphur" with an "f", nor is it a crime to correct mis-spellings, and now that we have the "Find & Replace" function in our wordprocessors, we have a rich field of text to download, correct and upload, much as an editor on Wikipedia might do. I am not saying, correct every "sulfur" mis-spelling, because Americans have the right to use their own spelling in their own work, where the spelling can then give information to the reader about the origin of such work. But all useages of the "f" spelling within our nation of the United Kingdom should be corrected back to the original spelling "sulphur". We have sat timidly for too long, or shrugged our shoulders, and I am no exception. When this "f" edict was issued, I could have contacted the newspapers and been photographed burning a copy of Webster’s Dictionary outside the RSC’s offices, but I was soporific and woke up late to the danger. But never "too late": what is right now is right tomorrow and was right in 1990 when the IUPAC made their mistake.

In summary, for the reasons outlined above, I suggest the membership would welcome the following events taking place:

  1. The RSC Nomenclature Committee will rescind its approval of the "sulfur" spelling of sulphur for texts originating in the UK
  2. The RSC NC will contact the IUPAC to express their concern about unnecessary interference in the culture of these islands.
  3. The IUPAC will accept that different countries, whether they speak a language called "English" or not, have the right to their own names for all elements in their respective languages, to include variations within languages that appear to be similar or having the same language title
  4. The IUPAC, in accordance with the principles I have outlined in this document, will rescind its decision to approve any particular spelling for sulphur, aluminium and certain other elements such as caesium
  5. Teaching establishments will encourage British students to use British spellings, while examination boards will widen the syllabus for 16-18 year olds.

I hope that in this text I have not ranted nor appeared impertinent, although there must be many chemist members who regard the Society as little short of God and would shrivel at the idea of defending their culture against so august a body. But I am trying to see the changes in chemical society the way our royal family might view them, taking a long-term view of the culture of these islands, and I am fairly certain that Her Majesty would not be in favour of the Americanisation of our language, even when used in a somewhat closeted professional body. I would have thought that sheer respect for the older members would have been enough to maintain a proper British English style in the magazine, but with the current editor, that is not the case. She admits to having received several letters on this subject from members, and this is certainly the tip of a huge iceberg. If the Nomenclature Committee wish to know the preferences of the membership, I respectfully suggest that they ask us to vote on the issue! But at the same time, to remind us that we are British, definitely not American, and should take the opportunity to make a statement to that effect.

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Neville Reed on Mar 22, 2012 11:28 am

I almost fear to tread in this area, but my comments may be of some interest to readers about this issue. In 1992 when the changed was proposed there was much debate so I asked the RSC's Library staff to research the spelling. What they found, as far as I could recall, was both interesting and surprising.  I am trying to find the paper so I can post it here, but the findings were that the original 'English' spelling was in fact 'sulfur' but this had gone out of fashion [I think in the C19th] and changed to 'sulphur' over a period of time.

Just goes to show that you can assume very little I guess!

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Stuart Cantrill on Mar 22, 2012 12:28 pm

The 'f' is not American spelling per se - albeit that is what they use, i.e., the use of 'f' should not be defined by the fact that that is what they usein the US. There is no good etymological reason for using 'ph' - it all stems from whether sulfur is a loan word from Greek (it is not). Apologies for linking to a journal I work for, but we editorialized on this a couple of years back: http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v1/n5/full/nchem.301.html (content should be free to those registered on nature.com).

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by on Mar 23, 2012 9:51 am

Seeing as we seem actually to be debating this now, then I have two points really...

1. What Stuart said

2. Should students not know about the derivation of the Schrodinger equation?  Perhaps learning it off by heart for an exam is silly, but not knowing where it came from is worse.  We're not doing maths degrees, and we're not doing physics or biology degrees either, but the dangers of studying Chemistry for Chemists' Chemists are that students don't learn about the hugely interdisciplinary nature of modern 'chemistry' research.  The maths behind everything not only provides a background so chemists know it's not just plucked out of thin air, but is useful later on in computational studies or for comparing physical models (or are we not doing an IT degree?).  :P

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Robert Slinn on Mar 23, 2012 12:28 pm

It may seem 'trivial' (correct term), but why not use the IUPAC (correct) nomenclature with the alternative (spelling or chemical name) in parenthesis in papers, and then everybody will be happy. But for searching the literature, using ChemSpider and other platforms, the (correct) IUPAC nomenclature is mandatory.

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Robert Slinn on Mar 23, 2012 12:45 pm

I will add as a rider, to mention the 'alternative' spelling and/or name (in parenthesis) after the IUPAC name, ONCE ONLY at the introduction, then afterwards use the IUPAC spelling and name throughout the publication. This is only a suggestion but probably would not be acceptable by publishers and IUPAC.

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Robert Slinn on Mar 23, 2012 1:19 pm

I contribute to the Physical Methods chapter in the RSC's Organophosphorus Chemistry where, apart from spelling Sulfur correctly (IUPAC), there are instances, in my review of publications, where alternative physical and analytical techniques have been mentioned (in the original publications) that are practically one and the same, e.g. Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) and Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR). The technique from the original publication is always used. Now, just to put the spanner in the works, I will add the spelling of the words analyze, crystallize, etc. I spell these with the z in publications which is the norm.

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Colin Cook on Mar 24, 2012 11:41 am

Of course collaboration between the scientific disciplines is absolutely necessary, but that should not mean that we all become experts in each others' disciplines. Mathematicians provide tools for physicists to use; physicists provide tools for chemists to use, and likewise chemists for biologists. Those working on the boundaries between disciplines need to learn something of the disciplines on either side. But to ask an HNC student to be able to prove the Schrodinger equation, or "wave" bye-bye to his prospects, seems quite unfair: if we need specialist information for whatever task we are attempting in whatever discipline, we should not be shy of looking up the relevant facts/proofs/forward reading in a library book. Isn't this what writing was invented for?

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Colin Cook on Mar 24, 2012 11:46 am

Neville Reed:
I almost fear to tread in this area, but my comments may be of some interest to readers about this issue. In 1992 when the changed was proposed there was much debate so I asked the RSC's Library staff to research the spelling. What they found, as far as I could recall, was both interesting and surprising.  I am trying to find the paper so I can post it here, but the findings were that the original 'English' spelling was in fact 'sulfur' but this had gone out of fashion [I think in the C19th] and changed to 'sulphur' over a period of time.

Just goes to show that you can assume very little I guess!
You know, regardless of its history, the people that were offended by the change of "sulfur" to "sulphur" back in those days are long dead. I am more concerned about the people who are alive today who wish to retain their own culture in their own country, and who see the modern spelling as an imposition put in place just so that some beaurocrat (probably non-British) can score a little victory over us.

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Colin Cook on Mar 24, 2012 11:58 am

Robert Slinn:
It may seem 'trivial' (correct term), but why not use the IUPAC (correct) nomenclature with the alternative (spelling or chemical name) in parenthesis in papers, and then everybody will be happy. But for searching the literature, using ChemSpider and other platforms, the (correct) IUPAC nomenclature is mandatory.
I think you are making helpful suggestions, but to suggest that the IUPAC are the only body that can designate a spelling as "correct" is to misunderstand the nature of culture. A nation's culture cannot be imposed, especially if (as I suspect) that pressure comes from foreign nations that do not have our interests at heart. Okay, I'm patriotic, but I am also facing redundancy from what was a British company having been taken over by a German company who now feels they can make better profits by manufacturing my products in the eastern part of their own country. I want to see British companies who employ chemists doing well, so we should not accept foreign interference lightly. International collaboration only works from a position of strength and self-confidence.

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Colin Cook on Mar 24, 2012 12:22 pm

Stuart Cantrill:
The 'f' is not American spelling per se - albeit that is what they use, i.e., the use of 'f' should not be defined by the fact that that is what they usein the US. There is no good etymological reason for using 'ph' - it all stems from whether sulfur is a loan word from Greek (it is not). Apologies for linking to a journal I work for, but we editorialized on this a couple of years back: http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v1/n5/full/nchem.301.html (content should be free to those registered on nature.com).
I disagree (of course!). I think it is precisely because the "f" spelling was adopted by the USA that the IUPAC decided that, since they are the largest group, they should get preference. That is why I said that the reasoning was off: they are not our group, culturally. The etymology is immaterial: as I said elsewhere, those that were offended by the last change from "f" to "ph" are long since gone and I wish to fight for the living not the dead.

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Chris Satterley on Apr 25, 2012 10:39 am

It's interesting that, despite IUPAC accepting the 'UK' spelling of 'aluminium', it had to accept that 'aluminum' was an accepted variant, however no such courtesy is extended to 'sulphur'... I don't really see the difference. IUPAC's job shouldn't be to tell people how to spell common words, it should have much more important things to do.

The problem with the 'f' in the UK is it is just another little thing that drives a wedge between science and wider society - why should we have a 'special' spelling of a relatively common word? That is really my problem with it, rather than any latent jingoism. We should be breaking down barriers between the wider public and science, not erecting them.

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Nick Gudde on Jul 27, 2012 10:47 am

I sort of agree with Chris's point about using language, spelling and nomenclature which aid good communication but who exactly is the target audience?  If UK then "sulphur" would be more familiar, but for a global audience dominated by "american english" (RSC's "internationalisation" agenda) "sulfur" might well be more familiar.

This opens up another "thread" -  which spelling is more consistent with the RSC's "brand"?  At the risk of being provocative, I'd suggest that "sulphur" is more consistent with the use of "Royal"........but on that basis, we should still be quoting enthalpies in British Thermal Units per lb.  Hmmmn... I wonder who might do that - and how they might spell sulphur?

Nick

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Colin Cook on Jul 28, 2012 6:59 pm

Nick Gudde:
I sort of agree with Chris's point about using language, spelling and nomenclature which aid good communication but who exactly is the target audience?  If UK then "sulphur" would be more familiar, but for a global audience dominated by "american english" (RSC's "internationalisation" agenda) "sulfur" might well be more familiar.

This opens up another "thread" -  which spelling is more consistent with the RSC's "brand"?  At the risk of being provocative, I'd suggest that "sulphur" is more consistent with the use of "Royal"........but on that basis, we should still be quoting enthalpies in British Thermal Units per lb.  Hmmmn... I wonder who might do that - and how they might spell sulphur?

Nick
It has nothing to do with "going back" to anything, especially units, although these days with calculators or computers it is easy to convert between units of measurement and if people are more comfortable with BTUs (as they seem to be with stones and pounds) then let them use those units; there are plenty of tables of heat quantities to support them, although probably in old printed books rather than online. No, we are not "going back" to an older spelling, because there is nothing especially new about the Americanised spellings, and in no way could they be considered an "modern" improvement on the British spelling, unlike the metric system, which is an improvement for scientists (although personally I would have liked a new duodecimal system to be introduced).

Re: Return of sulphur

Posted by Chris Satterley on Jul 30, 2012 9:53 am

Colin Cook:
Nick Gudde:
I sort of agree with Chris's point about using language, spelling and nomenclature which aid good communication but who exactly is the target audience?  If UK then "sulphur" would be more familiar, but for a global audience dominated by "american english" (RSC's "internationalisation" agenda) "sulfur" might well be more familiar.

This opens up another "thread" -  which spelling is more consistent with the RSC's "brand"?  At the risk of being provocative, I'd suggest that "sulphur" is more consistent with the use of "Royal"........but on that basis, we should still be quoting enthalpies in British Thermal Units per lb.  Hmmmn... I wonder who might do that - and how they might spell sulphur?

Nick
It has nothing to do with "going back" to anything, especially units, although these days with calculators or computers it is easy to convert between units of measurement and if people are more comfortable with BTUs (as they seem to be with stones and pounds) then let them use those units; there are plenty of tables of heat quantities to support them, although probably in old printed books rather than online. No, we are not "going back" to an older spelling, because there is nothing especially new about the Americanised spellings, and in no way could they be considered an "modern" improvement on the British spelling, unlike the metric system, which is an improvement for scientists (although personally I would have liked a new duodecimal system to be introduced).

Colin, completely agree with the fact that Sulfur isn't new or modern, just different. Just because we are international doesn't mean we have to stop being British! I think the Olympic opening ceremony has shown us that it is possible to be both.

However, I'm not so sure on your comments about units. Most conversion systems I've seen are not absolutely precise and when working with precision instrumentation then it is much better to work in one consistent set of units throughout to avoid an accumulation of small conversion errors that becomes significant.

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