General Chemistry/Electronegativity

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What determines the type of bond formed between two elements? There are two ways of classifying elements to determine the bond formed: by electronegativity, or by metallic/non-metallic character.


Electronegativity is a property of atoms which is reflected in the layout of the periodic table of the elements. Electronegativity is greatest in the elements in the upper right of the table (e.g., fluorine), and lowest in the lower left (e.g., francium).

Electronegativity is a relative measure of how strongly an atom will attract the electrons in a bond. Although bonds are the result of atoms sharing their electrons, the electrons can be shared unequally. The more electronegative atom in a bond will have a slight negative charge, and the less electronegative atom will have a slight positive charge. Overall, the molecule may have no charge, but the individual atoms will. This is a result of the electronegativity—by attracting the electrons in a bond, an atom gains a slight negative charge. Of course, if two elements have equal electronegativity, they will share the electrons equally.

Linus Pauling created a commonly-used measure of electronegativity.

Metallic elements have low electronegativity, and non-metallic elements have high electronegativity. If two elements are close to each other on the periodic table, they will have similar electronegativities.

Electronegativity is measured on a variety of scales, the most common being the Pauling scale. Created by chemist Linus Pauling, it assigns 4.0 to fluorine (the highest) and 0.7 to francium (the lowest).


Non-polar covalent bonds occur when there is equal or near-equal sharing of electrons between the two bonded atoms. This should make sense because covalent bonds are the sharing of electrons between two atoms. Molecules such as Cl2, H2 and F2 are good examples. Typically, a difference in electronegativity between 0.0 and 0.4 indicates a non-polar covalent bond.

Polar covalent bonds occur when there is unequal sharing of the electrons between the atoms. Molecules such as NH3 and H2O are examples of this. The typical rule is that bonds with an electronegativity difference between 0.5 and 1.7 are considered polar. The electrons are still being shared between two atoms, but one atom attracts the electrons more than the other.

Ionic bonding occur when there is complete transfer of the electrons in the bond. This type of bonding does not lead to the formation of molecule, but rather consists of a stacking of a great many ions, such that an overall neutral lattice is formed. Substances such as NaCl and MgCl2 are examples. Generally, electronegativity differences of 1.8 or greater lead to ionic bonding. The electronegativity difference is so great that one atom can attract the electrons enough to "take" them from the other atom.


When drawing diagrams of bonds, we indicate covalent bonds with a line. We may write the electronegativity using the symbols   and  . Look at this example.

Hydrogen fluoride (HF):  

The plus goes over the less electronegative atom. From the above diagram, we can see that the fluorine attracts the electrons in the covalent bond more than the hydrogen does. Fluorine will have a slight negative charge because of this, and hydrogen will have a slight positive charge. Overall, hydrogen fluoride is neutral.