Polar Covalent Bonds


The elements with the highest ionization energies are generally those with the most negative electron affinities, which are located toward the upper right corner of the periodic table. Conversely, the elements with the lowest ionization energies are generally those with the least negative electron affinities and are located in the lower left corner of the periodic table.

Because the tendency of an element to gain or lose electrons is so important in determining its chemistry, various methods have been developed to quantitatively describe this tendency. The most important method uses a measurement called electronegativity (represented by the Greek letter chi, χ, pronounced “ky” as in “sky”), defined as the relative ability of an atom to attract electrons to itself in a chemical compound. Elements with high electronegativities tend to acquire electrons in chemical reactions and are found in the upper right corner of the periodic table. Elements with low electronegativities tend to lose electrons in chemical reactions and are found in the lower left corner of the periodic table.

Unlike ionization energy or electron affinity, the electronegativity of an atom is not a simple, fixed property that can be directly measured in a single experiment. In fact, an atom’s electronegativity should depend to some extent on its chemical environment because the properties of an atom are influenced by its neighbors in a chemical compound. Nevertheless, when different methods for measuring the electronegativity of an atom are compared, they all tend to assign similar relative values to a given element. For example, all scales predict that fluorine has the highest electronegativity and cesium the lowest of the stable elements, which suggests that all the methods are measuring the same fundamental property.


Electronegativity is defined as the ability of an atom in a particular molecule to attract electrons to itself. The greater the value, the greater the attractiveness for electrons.

Unfortunately there is no direct way of measuring electronegativity. Dipole-moment measurements tell us about the electrical behavior of all electron pairs in the molecule, not just the bonding pair in which we are interested. Also, the polarity of a bond depends on whether the bond is a single, double, or triple bond and on what the other atoms and electron pairs in a molecule are. Therefore the dipole moment cannot tell us quantitatively the difference between the electronegativities of two bonded atoms. Various attempts have been made over the years to derive a scale of electronegativities for the elements, none of which is entirely satisfactory. Nevertheless most of these attempts agree in large measure in telling us which elements are more electronegative than others. The best-known of these scales was devised by the Nobel prize-winning California chemist Linus Pauling (1901 to 1994) and is shown in the periodic table found below. In this scale a value of 4.0 is arbitrarily given to the most electronegative element, fluorine, and the other electronegativities are scaled relative to this value.

Electronegativities of the elements

What if two atoms of equal electronegativity bond together?

Consider a bond between two atoms, A and B. If the atoms are equally electronegative, both have the same tendency to attract the bonding pair of electrons, and so it will be found on average half way between the two atoms:

To get a bond like this, A and B would usually have to be the same atom. You will find this sort of bond in, for example, H2 or Cl2 molecules. Note:  It’s important to realize that this is an average picture. The electrons are actually in a molecular orbital, and are moving around all the time within that orbital. This sort of bond could be thought of as being a “pure” covalent bond – where the electrons are shared evenly between the two atoms.

What if B is slightly more electronegative than A?

B will attract the electron pair rather more than A does.

That means that the B end of the bond has more than its fair share of electron density and so becomes slightly negative. At the same time, the A end (rather short of electrons) becomes slightly positive. In the diagram, “δδ” (read as “delta”) means “slightly” – so δ+δ+ means “slightly positive”.

A polar bond is a covalent bond in which there is a separation of charge between one end and the other – in other words in which one end is slightly positive and the other slightly negative. Examples include most covalent bonds. The hydrogen-chlorine bond in HCl or the hydrogen-oxygen bonds in water are typical.

If B is a lot more electronegative than A, then the electron pair is dragged right over to B’s end of the bond. To all intents and purposes, A has lost control of its electron, and B has complete control over both electrons. Ions have been formed. The bond is then an ionic bond rather than a covalent bond.

A “spectrum” of bonds

The implication of all this is that there is no clear-cut division between covalent and ionic bonds. In a pure covalent bond, the electrons are held on average exactly half way between the atoms. In a polar bond, the electrons have been dragged slightly towards one end. How far does this dragging have to go before the bond counts as ionic? There is no real answer to that. Sodium chloride is typiclly considered an ionic solid, but even here the sodium has not completely lost control of its electron. Because of the properties of sodium chloride, however, we tend to count it as if it were purely ionic. Lithium iodide, on the other hand, would be described as being “ionic with some covalent character”. In this case, the pair of electrons has not moved entirely over to the iodine end of the bond. Lithium iodide, for example, dissolves in organic solvents like ethanol – not something which ionic substances normally do.

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