Don’t Be Futyl, Learn The Butyls

by James

Nomenclature: what a headache. We’ve got all these accumulated years of jargon regarding chemical structures, and unless you learn the lingo, it can be confusing to follow what’s going on.

Case in point: butyl. There are FOUR different types of “butyls”, and they all have their own name. In addition they each have a common name (“trivial name”) which they commonly go by.  It’s easy to get confused. So today’s post is a guide to sorting them out.

Butane has four carbons. Now there’s two potential ways to organize those carbons – the 4-carbon straight chain (n-butane), and the 3-carbon chain with a methyl group on carbon #2 (2-methyl propane, also known as “isobutane”).  Don’t believe me? Try it out for yourself. There’s only two ways to do it.

Now let’s say we have some substituent. For example, let’s make it OH. Let’s remove a hydrogen from butane and replace it with OH. If you look at n-butane, you’ll see there’s really only two ways to do it. You can take it from C-1 (or C-4), in which case you get a primary alcohol (1-butanol, or “n-butanol”). Or you can take it from C-2 (or C-3) in which case you get a secondary alcohol (2-butanol, or “sec-butanol”). We sometimes shorten that to “s-butanol”.

Likewise for the isobutyl skeleton there is two ways to do it. You can replace an H on C-1 (or C-3 or C-4) with OH, in which case you get 2-methyl-1-propanol (“isobutanol”).  Or you can replace an H on C-2 with OH, and get 2-methyl-2-propanol (“t-butanol”). Those are the only two ways to do it!

This applies to other groups too. So if we used Cl instead of OH, we’d have n-butyl chloride, s-butyl chloride, t-butyl chloride, and isobutyl chloride. And if we used some other group, those four names – n-butyl, s-butyl, t-butyl or isobutyl – all remain the same.

 So here’s the punch line for butyl.

  1. 1-butyl (“n-butyl” where “n” stands for “normal”)
  2. 2-butyl (“s-butyl” where “s” stands for “secondary”)
  3. 2-methyl-1-propyl (“isobutyl”)
  4. 2-methyl-2-propyl (“t-butyl”)
What about pentyl? Thankfully, there’s too many possibilities to be limited to this simple system. There’s only one weird case: 2,2-dimethylpropane. We call this “neopentane”. If you replace an H with a substituent, that becomes the “neopentyl” group.

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