Pearson symbol

The Pearson symbol, or Pearson notation, is used in crystallography as a means of describing a crystal structure, and was originated by W.B. Pearson.[1] The symbol is made up of two letters followed by a number. For example:

The two (italicised) letters specify the Bravais lattice. The lower case letter specifies the crystal family, and the upper case letter the centring type. The number at the end of the Pearson symbol gives the number of the atoms in the unit cell. IUPAC (2005) [2]

Crystal family
a triclinic = anorthic
m monoclinic
o orthorhombic
t tetragonal
h hexagonal
c cubic
Centring type + number of translation equivalent points
PPrimitive 1
S,A,B,C One side/face centred 2
IBody centred (from innenzentriert (German))[3] 2
RRhombohedral centring (see below) 3
FAll faces centred 4

The letters A, B and C were formerly used instead of S. When the centred face cuts the X-axis, the Bravais lattice is called A-centred. In analogy, when the centred face cuts the Y- or Z-axis, we have B- or C-centring, respectively.[3]

The fourteen possible Bravais lattices are identified by the first two letters:

Crystal familyLattice symbolPearson symbol letters
Monoclinic P mP
S mS
Orthorhombic PoP
Tetragonal PtP
Hexagonal PhP

Pearson symbol and space group

The Pearson symbol does not uniquely identify the space group of a crystal structure, for example both the NaCl structure, (space group Fm3m) and diamond (space group Fd3m) have the same Pearson symbol cF8.

Confusion also arises in the rhombohedral lattice which is alternatively described in a centred hexagonal (a=b, c, α=β=90º, γ=120º) or primitive rhombohedral (a=b=c, α=β=γ) setting. The more commonly used hexagonal setting has 3 translation equivalent points per unit cell. The Pearson symbol refers to the hexagonal setting in its letter code (hR) but the following figure gives the number of translation equivalent points in the primitive rhombohedral setting. Examples: hR1 and hR2 are used to designate the Hg and Bi structure, respectively.


The Pearson symbol should only be used to designate simple structures (elements, some binary compound) where the number of atoms per unit cell equals, ideally, the number of translation equivalent points.


  1. W.B. Pearson, A Handbook of Lattice Spacings and Structures of Metals and Alloys,Vol. 2, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1967
  2. Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry IUPAC Recommendations 2005; IR-3.4.4, pp.49-51; IR-11.5, pp.241-242
  3. 1 2 page 124 in chapter 3. Crystallography: Internal order and symmetry in Cornelius Klein & Cornelius S. Hurlbut, Jr.: Manual of Mineralogy, 21st edition, 1993, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN 0-471-59955-7

Further reading

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