Whether a bond is nonpolar or polar covalent is determined by a property of the bonding atoms called electronegativity. Electronegativity is a measure of the tendency of an atom to attract electrons (or electron density) towards itself. It determines how the shared electrons are distributed between the two atoms in a bond. The more strongly an atom attracts the electrons in its bonds, the larger its electronegativity. Electrons in a polar covalent bond are shifted toward the more electronegative atom; thus, the more electronegative atom is the one with the partial negative charge. The more significant is the difference in electronegativity, the more polarized are the electron distribution, and the larger is the partial charges of the atoms.

In general, electronegativity increases from left to right across a period in the periodic table and decreases down a group. Thus, the nonmetals, which lie in the upper right, tend to have the highest electronegativities, with fluorine the most electronegative element of all (EN = 4.0). Metals tend to be less electronegative elements, and the group 1 metals have the lowest electronegativities. Note that noble gases are excluded from this figure because these atoms usually do not share electrons with other atoms since they have a full valence shell.

We must be careful not to confuse electronegativity and electron affinity. Electronegativity describes how tightly an atom attracts electrons in a bond. It is a dimensionless quantity that is calculated, not measured. Linus Pauling derived the first electronegativity values by comparing the amounts of energy required to break different types of bonds. He chose an arbitrary relative scale ranging from 0 to 4.

Electronegativity and bond type

The absolute value of the difference in electronegativity (ΔEN) of two bonded atoms provides a rough measure of the polarity to be expected in the bond and, thus, the bond type. When the difference is very small or zero, the bond is covalent and nonpolar. When it is large, the bond is polar covalent or ionic.

The absolute values of the electronegativity differences between the atoms in the bonds H–H, H–Cl, and Na–Cl are 0 (nonpolar), 0.9 (polar covalent), and 2.1 (ionic), respectively. The degree to which electrons are shared between atoms varies from completely equal (pure covalent bonding) to not at all (ionic bonding).

Bond typeElectronegativity difference
pure covalent< 0.4
polar covalentbetween 0.4 and 1.8
ionic> 1.8

This table is just a general guide, however, with many exceptions. For example, the H and F atoms in HF have an electronegativity difference of 1.9, and the N and H atoms in NH3 a difference of 0.9, yet both of these compounds form bonds that are considered polar covalent. Likewise, the Na and Cl atoms in NaCl have an electronegativity difference of 2.1, and the Mn and I atoms in MnI2 have a difference of 1.0, yet both of these substances form ionic compounds.

The best guide to the covalent or ionic character of a bond is to consider the types of atoms involved and their relative positions in the periodic table. Bonds between two nonmetals are generally covalent; bonding between a metal and a nonmetal is often ionic.

Some compounds contain both covalent and ionic bonds. The atoms in polyatomic ions, such as OH, NO3, and NH4+, are held together by polar covalent bonds. However, these polyatomic ions form ionic compounds by combining with ions of opposite charge. For example, potassium nitrate, KNO3, contains the K+ cation and the polyatomic NO3 anion. Thus, bonding in potassium nitrate is ionic, resulting from the electrostatic attraction between the ions K+ and NO3, as well as covalent between the nitrogen and oxygen atoms in NO3.

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