one of the three commonly recognized states in which matter occurs, i.e., that state, as distinguished from solid and gas, in which a substance has a definite volume but no definite shape.
In general, liquids show expansion on heating, contraction on cooling; water, however, does not follow the rule exactly. A liquid changes at its boiling point to a gas and at its freezing point, or melting point, to a solid. The boiling point is especially important because, since liquids change their states at different temperatures, those in a mixture can be separated from one another by raising the temperature of the mixture gradually so that each component in turn undergoes vaporization at its boiling point. This process is known as fractional distillation.
Liquids, like gases, exhibit the property of diffusion. When two miscible liquids (i.e., they mix without separation) are poured carefully into a container so that the denser one forms a separate layer on the bottom, each will diffuse slowly into the other until they are thoroughly mixed. Liquids, like gases, differ from solids in that they are fluids, that is, they flow into the shape of a containing vessel. Liquids exert pressure on the sides of a containing vessel and on any body immersed in them, and pressure is transmitted through a liquid undiminished and in all directions. Liquids exert a buoyant force on an immersed body equal to the weight of the liquid displaced by the body (see Archimedes' principle and specific gravity). Unlike gases, liquids are very nearly incompressible, and for that reason are useful in such devices as the hydraulic press. Liquids are useful as solvents. No one liquid can dissolve all substances; each takes into solution only certain specific substances.
The molecules (or atoms or ions) of a liquid, like those of a solid (and unlike those of a gas), are quite close together; however, while molecules in a solid are held in fixed positions by intermolecular forces, molecules in a liquid have too much thermal energy to be bound by these forces and move about freely within the liquid, although they cannot escape the liquid easily. Although the molecules of a liquid have greater cohesion than those of a gas, it is not sufficient to prevent some of those at the free surface of the liquid from bounding off (see evaporation). On the other hand, the cohesive forces between the molecules at the surface of a mass of liquid and those within cause the free surface to act somewhat like a stretched elastic membrane; it tends to draw inward toward the center of the liquid mass, to draw the liquid into the shape of a sphere, thus exhibiting the phenomenon known as surface tension.
A liquid is said to “wet” a solid substance when the attractive force between the molecules of the liquid and those of the solid is great enough to hold the liquid's molecules at the solid surface. For example, water “wets” glass since its molecules cling to glass surfaces, whereas mercury does not since the adhesive force between its molecules and those of glass is not strong enough to hold them together. Capillarity is an example of surface tension and adhesion acting at the same time.