Sulfur or Sulphur: What’s the Difference?

Chemistry is full of words that are confusing to writers who are not well-versed in scientific language. Even for writers who have a background in the natural sciences, spelling eccentricities can make life difficult.

The name of one element on the periodic table, corresponding to the atomic number 16, is spelled two different ways. In some publications, the word is spelled sulfur, while in others, it is spelled sulphur.

Which of these words is correct? Did some of these authors spend too much time on science projects in school, and not enough time learning how to spell? As funny as that would be, these words actually reflect spelling differences in American and British English.

What is the Difference Between Sulfur and Sulphur?

In this post, I will compare sulfur vs sulphur. I will use each word in at least one example sentence. Plus, I will discuss a useful memory tool that will help you decide whether sulfur or sulphur is correct for your writing.

When to Use Sulfur

Define sulphur define sulfurWhat does sulfur mean? Sulfur is a noun. It refers to a specific mineral. Sulfur has the atomic number 16. It is nonmetallic, usually yellow in color, and occurs naturally throughout the world.

ere are some examples of the word sulfur in a sentence,

  • Kelly accidentally cracked a rotten egg, and it smelled like sulfur.
  • Sulfur is extracted from petroleum and natural gas.
  • In chemistry, sulfur is used for a wide variety of purposes.
  • But what always stunned me in particular about the Radikon wines were not only their beauty but also their rock-solid stability, even though Mr. Radikon for years has been working without sulfur dioxide, the stabilizing additive used as a safety net in almost all fine wines around the world. –The New York Times

When to Use Sulphur

is it sulphur or sulfurWhat does sulphur mean? Sulphur is an alternate spelling of the same word used in British English. It refers to the same mineral.

  • The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) agreed on Thursday to set a cap on the sulphur content of marine fuels, in a move that campaigners predict will save millions of lives in the coming decades. –The Guardian

Sulfur has been the standard spelling in American English since roughly the middle of the 20th century, as you can see from this graph:

sulfur versus sulphur

Sulphur is the older spelling, and at least for now, it is still preferred in British English:

Definition of sulphur definition of sulfur

These charts aren’t scientific or exhaustive (they only look at the frequency of these words in books written in English since 1800). Still, they provide a clear illustration of a long-term trend.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Sulphur is the preferred spelling of this word in British English. In American English, sulfur has become standard.

Here is a helpful trick to remember sulphur vs. sulfur. You can remember to reserve sulphur for use with predominantly British audiences by enlisting the help of a mnemonic, or memory tool.

Sulphur is spelled with the letters PH, like the name of Prince Philip, a famous British person. By keeping in mind the commonalities in spelling between sulphur and this person’s name, it should be easy to link sulphur and Britain in your mind.

Summary

Is it sulfur or sulphur? Sulfur and sulphur are two alternate spellings of the same noun, which refers to a specific element on the periodic table. This substance is a mineral which has the atomic number 16 and can be found in nature as a yellowish, crystalline byproduct of natural gas.

  • Sulfur is the preferred spelling in American English.
  • Sulphur is the preferred spelling British English.

Since sulphur shares letters with the name of a member of the British royal family, Prince Philip, you should have little trouble saving sulphur for use with predominantly British audiences.

In summary, sulfur is the American spelling, and sulphur the British spelling of this word.