Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Changing one letter, even if it has a minimal (if any) impact on pronunciation, can have a dramatic impact on the meaning of a word. We’ve explored this with aide and aid, capitol and capital, and canvas and canvass, among others. You really have to be careful about your word choice and spelling, because you could be saying something entirely different from what you actually mean. And this is precisely the case with the words “silicon” and “silicone” too.

Both terms are used quite commonly in today’s society, particularly with the ongoing rise in technology in the last twenty or more years. I’ve even caught myself using the word “silicone” when I really meant to say “silicon” (and vice versa). It’s a very common error and the confusion is further exacerbated by the close relationship that the two words share.

Silicon (without the “e”) can be found on the periodic table of the elements, just like copper (29), oxygen (8) and gold (79). Atomic number 14, it’s a nonmetal with semiconducting properties, usually taking on a gray or silver color in appearance. Because it’s a good semiconductor, silicon is very commonly used in electronic circuits.

If you’re talking about the stuff that’s on your computer’s motherboard, you’re talking about silicon. That’s why a neighborhood in the San Francisco area is called Silicon Valley; it’s home to a great number of tech companies, including Apple, Cisco, Google, HP, nVIDIA, and Western Digital.

Silicone (with an “e”) is not a chemical element. Instead, it is a class of synthetic materials used for a number of different applications. The rubbery sleeve that you have for your cell phone or Wii Remote is made of silicone. Some breast implants are made of silicone. The adhesive sealant that you might use when installing a sink or faucet could be made with silicone.

A big part of the confusion arises because silicone, as a compound, is made with silicon and oxygen, among other elements. Different types of silicone will naturally have different formulations, but they all start with silica (silicon dioxide; SiO2) as the base. Silica can be found naturally in quartz, sand, and even living organisms. It can also be formed synthetically, which is usually the case when making silicone.

The easiest way to remember this relationship is that there is silicon (the chemical element) inside of silicone (the synthetic material), just as there is “silicon” (the word) inside of “silicone” (the word).

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