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The Atterberg limits are a basic measure of the critical water contents of a fine-grained soil, such as its shrinkage limit, plastic limit, and liquid limit. As a dry, clayey soil takes on increasing amounts of water, it undergoes dramatic and distinct changes in behavior and consistency. Depending on the water content of the soil, it may appear in four states: solid, semi-solid, plastic and liquid. In each state, the consistency and behavior of a soil is different and consequently so are its engineering properties. Thus, the boundary between each state can be defined based on a change in the soil's behavior. The Atterberg limits can be used to distinguish between silt and clay, and it can distinguish between different types of silts and clays. These limits were created by Albert Atterberg, a Swedish chemist.<ref name=history> {{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=web }}</ref> They were later refined by Arthur Casagrande. These distinctions in soil are used in assessing the soils that are to have structures built on. Soils when wet retain water and some expand in volume. The amount of expansion is related to the ability of the soil to take in water and its structural make-up (the type of atoms present). These tests are mainly used on clayey or silty soils since these are the soils that expand and shrink due to moisture content. Clays and silts react with the water and thus change sizes and have varying shear strengths. Thus these tests are used widely in the preliminary stages of designing any structure to ensure that the soil will have the correct amount of shear strength and not too much change in volume as it expands and shrinks with different moisture contents.

As a hard, rigid solid in the dry state, soil becomes a crumbly (friable) semisolid when a certain moisture content, termed the shrinkage limit, is reached. If it is an expansive soil, this soil will also begin to swell in volume as this moisture content is exceeded. Increasing the water content beyond the soil's plastic limit will transform it into a malleable, plastic mass, which causes additional swelling. The soil will remain in this plastic state until its liquid limit is exceeded, which causes it to transform into a viscous liquid that flows when jarred.


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