What are the Characteristics of an Element?

What are Elements? What are the Characteristics of an Element? What are the different Types of Elements? What are the Characteristics that make Elements different from Compounds?
what are the characteristics of an element

The world inside and around us holds a lot of mysteries, and we use science to discover the world we live in. Chemistry is a branch of science where you study chemicals, compounds, elements, their properties, structure, etc. You must have heard or read about elements in your chemistry school books but have you tried understanding them deeply. Do you know the characteristics of elements, or do you know what decides the characteristics of an element? If not, let’s find out all about them.

1. What is an Element?

An element is a pure chemical substance that cannot be further broken into a simpler form. It is not decomposable. It’s composed of atoms with the same number of protons in the atomic nuclei. The elements are arranged in the periodic table according to their atomic numbers. This highlights elements with the same properties. (See What type of Ions have Name ending in -ide?)

The discovery of elements wasn’t an instant process. It took scientists years to discover the elements and characteristics of an element.

  • Philosophers like Aristotle were of the thought that the world has a limited set of four elements, namely air, water, earth, and fire.
  • But in the 1650s, an Irish chemist proved that the world contained more than 4 elements.
  • In 1789, a French chemist Antonie Lavoisier made the first list of elements known at that time.
  • In 1869, a Russian chemist Dimitri Mendeleev created a framework that later became the modern periodic table. He left a gap for the elements that were yet to be discovered.
  • Then, many scientists discovered various elements that you see today in the periodic table.
  • In the periodic table, the elements are organized in rows called periods and columns called groups. At present, there are 118 elements in the periodic table.  Must read what are the properties of mixtures?

2. What are the Different Types of Elements?

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The simplest substance in which all the atoms are the same is called elements. These elements are generally divided into metallic, non-metallic, and metalloids based on their groups in the periodic table. 

Metallic Elements:

  • Elements that can form positive ions and metallic bonds are called metallic elements.
  • Most elements in the modern periodic table are said to be metallic. Metallic elements are further classified into main group metals, f-block metals, and transition metals.
  • Metals include alkali metals, lanthanides, actinides, transition metals, and alkaline earth metals.
  • The periodic table separates these from the non-metals through a zigzag line that starts from Carbon and goes to Radon.
  • These elements have high electrical conductivity and a high melting point.
  • They are lustrous in appearance.
  • Examples: copper, gold, aluminum, silver, etc. (See What is Metal Made of?)

Non-metallic Elements:

  • They don’t form positive ions or metallic bonds.
  • They are rarer than metals.
  • They are present on the right-hand side of the periodic table.
  • They have poor electrical and thermal conductivity.
  • They have a dull appearance.
  • Example: carbon, phosphorous, hydrogen, oxygen, etc.


  • They are a very small group of elements.
  • In the periodic table, they are positioned near the zigzag diagonal line that distinguishes metals from non-metals.
  • Their properties fall between metals and non-metals.
  • They are neither particularly dull nor lustrous in appearance.
  • Example: boron, silicon, germanium, arsenic, etc. Also, check out what are Examples of Elements in Everyday Life?

3. Element vs Characteristics – What’s the Difference?

Both of these words mean different things in different contexts. In literature, element means the simplest or essential part of a thing upon which its constitution is based. Whereas here, characteristics are the distinguishing feature of a thing.

In the scientific context, elements are pure substances that cannot be further broken. For example, gold, silver, potassium, etc. In this context, characteristics of an element are used to point out an individual’s (elements’) distinctive features or traits, a thing, a group, and the like. For example, the characteristic of an element is that it is made up of the same kind of atoms. (See What happens When Water Boils?)

4. What are the Five Characteristics of Element?

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The five main characteristics of elements are:

  • They consist of the same kind of atoms and cannot be divided into simpler components.
  • The atomic number differentiates it from other elements. The atomic number of an element equals the number of protons a single atom of that element holds.
  • An atomic symbol of the element is also an important characteristic to recognize the element. It represents the element in the periodic table. For example, the atomic symbol of phosphorous is P.
  • Atomic mass is also one of the characteristics of an element. The mass number of an element denotes its atomic mass. It is represented by the letter A and is a sum of the total number of protons, neutrons, and electrons present in an atom. For example, chlorine has an atomic mass of 35.5.
  • The boiling and melting point differs in different elements. (See How many valence electrons does oxygen have?)

5. What is the most important Characteristic of an Element?

Among the characteristics of an element, the atomic number is the most important. The atomic number is different for different elements. It is equal to the number of protons in the nucleus of each item of the element. It’s also equal to the number of extranuclear electrons in the atom. It is denoted by the letter Z. For example, hydrogen’s atomic number is 1 because it has 1 proton in its nucleus. (See What are Properties in Science?)

6. Compound vs Element: What are the Characteristics that make Elements different from Compounds?

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Elements are pure substances that cannot be further divided into simpler forms, whereas compounds are substances formed by two or more elements. Let’s go through the characteristics of an element that differentiate it from a compound.

  • Numbers: There are 118 elements in the present, whereas the number of compounds is almost endless.
  • Representation: Symbols and numbers represent the elements. Like K for Potassium. The compounds, however, are denoted by chemical formulas. Like water is denoted by H₂O. 
  • Types: Elements are further classified as metals, non-metals, and metalloids. Compounds are classified based on their bonds. It can be ionic, molecular, or metallic.
  • Distinguishing factor: Elements are distinguished by their atomic number, whereas compounds are distinguished by their fixed ratio of different elements.
  • Composition: Elements are made up of only one type of atom. On the other hand, compounds are composed of the same kind of molecules. 
  • Breakdown ability: Elements cannot be broken down into simpler forms by any chemical reaction. Compounds can easily be further broken down into simpler substances through chemical reactions.
  • Examples: The examples of elements are gold, aluminum, hydrogen, sodium, calcium, etc. Examples of compounds are NaCl (sodium chloride, salt), NaOH (sodium hydroxide), etc. (Also read Is Air an Element, Compound, or Mixture?)

7. What are the 4 defining Characteristics of a Compound?

The four defining characteristics of a compound are:

  • The elements are in fixed proportion in a compound.
  • The physical and chemical properties of a compound are different from the elements it is made up of.
  • They can only be broken down chemically.
  • The last characteristic is that they are made of one kind of molecule. Its composition is homogeneous. (See Why do atoms form chemical bonds?)

8. Why is it important to know the Properties and Characteristics of some Elements?

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All of our being and our surrounding is composed of elements. We should try to know their properties and characteristics to use them properly. By understanding the properties and characteristics of an element, you will know

  • How they are atomically put together?
  • How one element will behave with another?
  • How can you store and handle certain elements? Also, check out how is energy measured?

For example, Potassium is an element that reacts actively with air and water and should be stored in an inert condition to avoid any accidents. Increasing your knowledge helps you under things clearly and avoid any mishappening that could happen with the lack of knowledge. Check out how do Solar Powered Lights work?

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