Skip to Content
OpenStax Logo
Chemistry: Atoms First

4.2 Covalent Bonding

Chemistry: Atoms First4.2 Covalent Bonding
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Essential Ideas
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 Chemistry in Context
    3. 1.2 Phases and Classification of Matter
    4. 1.3 Physical and Chemical Properties
    5. 1.4 Measurements
    6. 1.5 Measurement Uncertainty, Accuracy, and Precision
    7. 1.6 Mathematical Treatment of Measurement Results
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Equations
    10. Summary
    11. Exercises
  3. 2 Atoms, Molecules, and Ions
    1. Introduction
    2. 2.1 Early Ideas in Atomic Theory
    3. 2.2 Evolution of Atomic Theory
    4. 2.3 Atomic Structure and Symbolism
    5. 2.4 Chemical Formulas
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Equations
    8. Summary
    9. Exercises
  4. 3 Electronic Structure and Periodic Properties of Elements
    1. Introduction
    2. 3.1 Electromagnetic Energy
    3. 3.2 The Bohr Model
    4. 3.3 Development of Quantum Theory
    5. 3.4 Electronic Structure of Atoms (Electron Configurations)
    6. 3.5 Periodic Variations in Element Properties
    7. 3.6 The Periodic Table
    8. 3.7 Molecular and Ionic Compounds
    9. Key Terms
    10. Key Equations
    11. Summary
    12. Exercises
  5. 4 Chemical Bonding and Molecular Geometry
    1. Introduction
    2. 4.1 Ionic Bonding
    3. 4.2 Covalent Bonding
    4. 4.3 Chemical Nomenclature
    5. 4.4 Lewis Symbols and Structures
    6. 4.5 Formal Charges and Resonance
    7. 4.6 Molecular Structure and Polarity
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Equations
    10. Summary
    11. Exercises
  6. 5 Advanced Theories of Bonding
    1. Introduction
    2. 5.1 Valence Bond Theory
    3. 5.2 Hybrid Atomic Orbitals
    4. 5.3 Multiple Bonds
    5. 5.4 Molecular Orbital Theory
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Equations
    8. Summary
    9. Exercises
  7. 6 Composition of Substances and Solutions
    1. Introduction
    2. 6.1 Formula Mass and the Mole Concept
    3. 6.2 Determining Empirical and Molecular Formulas
    4. 6.3 Molarity
    5. 6.4 Other Units for Solution Concentrations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Equations
    8. Summary
    9. Exercises
  8. 7 Stoichiometry of Chemical Reactions
    1. Introduction
    2. 7.1 Writing and Balancing Chemical Equations
    3. 7.2 Classifying Chemical Reactions
    4. 7.3 Reaction Stoichiometry
    5. 7.4 Reaction Yields
    6. 7.5 Quantitative Chemical Analysis
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Equations
    9. Summary
    10. Exercises
  9. 8 Gases
    1. Introduction
    2. 8.1 Gas Pressure
    3. 8.2 Relating Pressure, Volume, Amount, and Temperature: The Ideal Gas Law
    4. 8.3 Stoichiometry of Gaseous Substances, Mixtures, and Reactions
    5. 8.4 Effusion and Diffusion of Gases
    6. 8.5 The Kinetic-Molecular Theory
    7. 8.6 Non-Ideal Gas Behavior
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Equations
    10. Summary
    11. Exercises
  10. 9 Thermochemistry
    1. Introduction
    2. 9.1 Energy Basics
    3. 9.2 Calorimetry
    4. 9.3 Enthalpy
    5. 9.4 Strengths of Ionic and Covalent Bonds
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Equations
    8. Summary
    9. Exercises
  11. 10 Liquids and Solids
    1. Introduction
    2. 10.1 Intermolecular Forces
    3. 10.2 Properties of Liquids
    4. 10.3 Phase Transitions
    5. 10.4 Phase Diagrams
    6. 10.5 The Solid State of Matter
    7. 10.6 Lattice Structures in Crystalline Solids
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Equations
    10. Summary
    11. Exercises
  12. 11 Solutions and Colloids
    1. Introduction
    2. 11.1 The Dissolution Process
    3. 11.2 Electrolytes
    4. 11.3 Solubility
    5. 11.4 Colligative Properties
    6. 11.5 Colloids
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Equations
    9. Summary
    10. Exercises
  13. 12 Thermodynamics
    1. Introduction
    2. 12.1 Spontaneity
    3. 12.2 Entropy
    4. 12.3 The Second and Third Laws of Thermodynamics
    5. 12.4 Free Energy
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Equations
    8. Summary
    9. Exercises
  14. 13 Fundamental Equilibrium Concepts
    1. Introduction
    2. 13.1 Chemical Equilibria
    3. 13.2 Equilibrium Constants
    4. 13.3 Shifting Equilibria: Le Châtelier’s Principle
    5. 13.4 Equilibrium Calculations
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Equations
    8. Summary
    9. Exercises
  15. 14 Acid-Base Equilibria
    1. Introduction
    2. 14.1 Brønsted-Lowry Acids and Bases
    3. 14.2 pH and pOH
    4. 14.3 Relative Strengths of Acids and Bases
    5. 14.4 Hydrolysis of Salt Solutions
    6. 14.5 Polyprotic Acids
    7. 14.6 Buffers
    8. 14.7 Acid-Base Titrations
    9. Key Terms
    10. Key Equations
    11. Summary
    12. Exercises
  16. 15 Equilibria of Other Reaction Classes
    1. Introduction
    2. 15.1 Precipitation and Dissolution
    3. 15.2 Lewis Acids and Bases
    4. 15.3 Multiple Equilibria
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Equations
    7. Summary
    8. Exercises
  17. 16 Electrochemistry
    1. Introduction
    2. 16.1 Balancing Oxidation-Reduction Reactions
    3. 16.2 Galvanic Cells
    4. 16.3 Standard Reduction Potentials
    5. 16.4 The Nernst Equation
    6. 16.5 Batteries and Fuel Cells
    7. 16.6 Corrosion
    8. 16.7 Electrolysis
    9. Key Terms
    10. Key Equations
    11. Summary
    12. Exercises
  18. 17 Kinetics
    1. Introduction
    2. 17.1 Chemical Reaction Rates
    3. 17.2 Factors Affecting Reaction Rates
    4. 17.3 Rate Laws
    5. 17.4 Integrated Rate Laws
    6. 17.5 Collision Theory
    7. 17.6 Reaction Mechanisms
    8. 17.7 Catalysis
    9. Key Terms
    10. Key Equations
    11. Summary
    12. Exercises
  19. 18 Representative Metals, Metalloids, and Nonmetals
    1. Introduction
    2. 18.1 Periodicity
    3. 18.2 Occurrence and Preparation of the Representative Metals
    4. 18.3 Structure and General Properties of the Metalloids
    5. 18.4 Structure and General Properties of the Nonmetals
    6. 18.5 Occurrence, Preparation, and Compounds of Hydrogen
    7. 18.6 Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of Carbonates
    8. 18.7 Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of Nitrogen
    9. 18.8 Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of Phosphorus
    10. 18.9 Occurrence, Preparation, and Compounds of Oxygen
    11. 18.10 Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of Sulfur
    12. 18.11 Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of Halogens
    13. 18.12 Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of the Noble Gases
    14. Key Terms
    15. Summary
    16. Exercises
  20. 19 Transition Metals and Coordination Chemistry
    1. Introduction
    2. 19.1 Occurrence, Preparation, and Properties of Transition Metals and Their Compounds
    3. 19.2 Coordination Chemistry of Transition Metals
    4. 19.3 Spectroscopic and Magnetic Properties of Coordination Compounds
    5. Key Terms
    6. Summary
    7. Exercises
  21. 20 Nuclear Chemistry
    1. Introduction
    2. 20.1 Nuclear Structure and Stability
    3. 20.2 Nuclear Equations
    4. 20.3 Radioactive Decay
    5. 20.4 Transmutation and Nuclear Energy
    6. 20.5 Uses of Radioisotopes
    7. 20.6 Biological Effects of Radiation
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Equations
    10. Summary
    11. Exercises
  22. 21 Organic Chemistry
    1. Introduction
    2. 21.1 Hydrocarbons
    3. 21.2 Alcohols and Ethers
    4. 21.3 Aldehydes, Ketones, Carboxylic Acids, and Esters
    5. 21.4 Amines and Amides
    6. Key Terms
    7. Summary
    8. Exercises
  23. A | The Periodic Table
  24. B | Essential Mathematics
  25. C | Units and Conversion Factors
  26. D | Fundamental Physical Constants
  27. E | Water Properties
  28. F | Composition of Commercial Acids and Bases
  29. G | Standard Thermodynamic Properties for Selected Substances
  30. H | Ionization Constants of Weak Acids
  31. I | Ionization Constants of Weak Bases
  32. J | Solubility Products
  33. K | Formation Constants for Complex Ions
  34. L | Standard Electrode (Half-Cell) Potentials
  35. M | Half-Lives for Several Radioactive Isotopes
  36. Answer Key
    1. Chapter 1
    2. Chapter 2
    3. Chapter 3
    4. Chapter 4
    5. Chapter 5
    6. Chapter 6
    7. Chapter 7
    8. Chapter 8
    9. Chapter 9
    10. Chapter 10
    11. Chapter 11
    12. Chapter 12
    13. Chapter 13
    14. Chapter 14
    15. Chapter 15
    16. Chapter 16
    17. Chapter 17
    18. Chapter 18
    19. Chapter 19
    20. Chapter 20
    21. Chapter 21
  37. Index

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Describe the formation of covalent bonds
  • Define electronegativity and assess the polarity of covalent bonds

Ionic bonding results from the electrostatic attraction of oppositely charge ions that are typically produced by the transfer of electrons between metallic and nonmetallic atoms. A different type of bonding results from the mutual attraction of atoms for a “shared” pair of electrons. Such bonds are called covalent bonds. Covalent bonds are formed between two atoms when both have similar tendencies to attract electrons to themselves (i.e., when both atoms have identical or fairly similar ionization energies and electron affinities). For example, two hydrogen atoms bond covalently to form an H2 molecule; each hydrogen atom in the H2 molecule has two electrons stabilizing it, giving each atom the same number of valence electrons as the noble gas He.

Compounds that contain covalent bonds exhibit different physical properties than ionic compounds. Because the attraction between molecules, which are electrically neutral, is weaker than that between electrically charged ions, covalent compounds generally have much lower melting and boiling points than ionic compounds. In fact, many covalent compounds are liquids or gases at room temperature, and, in their solid states, they are typically much softer than ionic solids. Furthermore, whereas ionic compounds are good conductors of electricity when dissolved in water, most covalent compounds are insoluble in water; since they are electrically neutral, they are poor conductors of electricity in any state.

Formation of Covalent Bonds

Nonmetal atoms frequently form covalent bonds with other nonmetal atoms. For example, the hydrogen molecule, H2, contains a covalent bond between its two hydrogen atoms. Figure 4.4 illustrates why this bond is formed. Starting on the far right, we have two separate hydrogen atoms with a particular potential energy, indicated by the red line. Along the x-axis is the distance between the two atoms. As the two atoms approach each other (moving left along the x-axis), their valence orbitals (1s) begin to overlap. The single electrons on each hydrogen atom then interact with both atomic nuclei, occupying the space around both atoms. The strong attraction of each shared electron to both nuclei stabilizes the system, and the potential energy decreases as the bond distance decreases. If the atoms continue to approach each other, the positive charges in the two nuclei begin to repel each other, and the potential energy increases. The bond length is determined by the distance at which the lowest potential energy is achieved.

A graph is shown with the x-axis labeled, “Internuclear distance ( p m )” while the y-axis is labeled, “Energy ( J ).” One value, “0,” is labeled midway up the y-axis and two values: “0” at the far left and “0.74” to the left, are labeled on the x-axis. The point “0.74” is labeled, “H bond H distance.” A line is graphed that begins near the top of the y-axis and to the far left on the x-axis and drops steeply to a point labeled, “negative 7.24 times 10 superscript negative 19 J” on the y-axis and 0.74 on the x-axis. This low point on the graph corresponds to a drawing of two spheres that overlap considerably. The line then rises to zero on the y-axis and levels out. The point where it almost reaches zero corresponds to two spheres that overlap slightly. The line at zero on the y-axis corresponds to two spheres that are far from one another.
Figure 4.4 The potential energy of two separate hydrogen atoms (right) decreases as they approach each other, and the single electrons on each atom are shared to form a covalent bond. The bond length is the internuclear distance at which the lowest potential energy is achieved.

Pure vs. Polar Covalent Bonds

If the atoms that form a covalent bond are identical, as in H2, Cl2, and other diatomic molecules, then the electrons in the bond must be shared equally. We refer to this as a pure covalent bond. Electrons shared in pure covalent bonds have an equal probability of being near each nucleus.

In the case of Cl2, each atom starts off with seven valence electrons, and each Cl shares one electron with the other, forming one covalent bond:


The total number of electrons around each individual atom consists of six nonbonding electrons and two shared (i.e., bonding) electrons for eight total electrons, matching the number of valence electrons in the noble gas argon. Since the bonding atoms are identical, Cl2 also features a pure covalent bond.

When the atoms linked by a covalent bond are different, the bonding electrons are shared, but no longer equally. Instead, the bonding electrons are more attracted to one atom than the other, giving rise to a shift of electron density toward that atom. This unequal distribution of electrons is known as a polar covalent bond, characterized by a partial positive charge on one atom and a partial negative charge on the other. The atom that attracts the electrons more strongly acquires the partial negative charge and vice versa. For example, the electrons in the H–Cl bond of a hydrogen chloride molecule spend more time near the chlorine atom than near the hydrogen atom. Thus, in an HCl molecule, the chlorine atom carries a partial negative charge and the hydrogen atom has a partial positive charge. Figure 4.5 shows the distribution of electrons in the H–Cl bond. Note that the shaded area around Cl is much larger than it is around H. Compare this to Figure 4.4, which shows the even distribution of electrons in the H2 nonpolar bond.

We sometimes designate the positive and negative atoms in a polar covalent bond using a lowercase Greek letter “delta,” δ, with a plus sign or minus sign to indicate whether the atom has a partial positive charge (δ+) or a partial negative charge (δ–). This symbolism is shown for the H–Cl molecule in Figure 4.5.

Two diagrams are shown and labeled “a” and “b.” Diagram a shows a small sphere labeled, “H” and a larger sphere labeled, “C l” that overlap slightly. Both spheres have a small dot in the center. Diagram b shows an H bonded to a C l with a single bond. A dipole and a positive sign are written above the H and a dipole and negative sign are written above the C l. An arrow points toward the C l with a plus sign on the end furthest from the arrow’s head near the H.
Figure 4.5 (a) The distribution of electron density in the HCl molecule is uneven. The electron density is greater around the chlorine nucleus. The small, black dots indicate the location of the hydrogen and chlorine nuclei in the molecule. (b) Symbols δ+ and δ– indicate the polarity of the H–Cl bond.


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 greater the difference in electronegativity, the more polarized the electron distribution and the larger the partial charges of the atoms.

Figure 4.6 shows the electronegativity values of the elements as proposed by one of the most famous chemists of the twentieth century: Linus Pauling (Figure 4.7). 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 others atoms since they have a full valence shell. (While noble gas compounds such as XeO2 do exist, they can only be formed under extreme conditions, and thus they do not fit neatly into the general model of electronegativity.)

Part of the periodic table is shown. A downward-facing arrow is drawn to the left of the table and labeled, “Decreasing electronegativity,” while a right-facing arrow is drawn above the table and labeled “Increasing electronegativity.” The electronegativity for almost all the elements is given.
Figure 4.6 The electronegativity values derived by Pauling follow predictable periodic trends with the higher electronegativities toward the upper right of the periodic table.

Electronegativity versus Electron Affinity

We must be careful not to confuse electronegativity and electron affinity. The electron affinity of an element is a measurable physical quantity, namely, the energy released or absorbed when an isolated gas-phase atom acquires an electron, measured in kJ/mol. Electronegativity, on the other hand, describes how tightly an atom attracts electrons in a bond. It is a dimensionless quantity that is calculated, not measured. 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.

Portrait of a Chemist

Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling, shown in Figure 4.7, is the only person to have received two unshared (individual) Nobel Prizes: one for chemistry in 1954 for his work on the nature of chemical bonds and one for peace in 1962 for his opposition to weapons of mass destruction. He developed many of the theories and concepts that are foundational to our current understanding of chemistry, including electronegativity and resonance structures.

A photograph of Linus Pauling is shown.
Figure 4.7 Linus Pauling (1901–1994) made many important contributions to the field of chemistry. He was also a prominent activist, publicizing issues related to health and nuclear weapons.

Pauling also contributed to many other fields besides chemistry. His research on sickle cell anemia revealed the cause of the disease—the presence of a genetically inherited abnormal protein in the blood—and paved the way for the field of molecular genetics. His work was also pivotal in curbing the testing of nuclear weapons; he proved that radioactive fallout from nuclear testing posed a public health risk.

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). Figure 4.8 shows the relationship between electronegativity difference and bond type.

Two flow charts and table are shown. The first flow chart is labeled, “Electronegativity difference between bonding atoms.” Below this label are three rounded text bubbles, connected by a downward-facing arrow, labeled, “Zero,” “Intermediate,” and “Large,” respectively. The second flow chart is labeled, “Bond type.” Below this label are three rounded text bubbles, connected by a downward-facing arrow, labeled, “Pure covalent,” “Polar covalent,” and “Ionic,” respectively. A double ended arrow is written vertically to the right of the flow charts and labeled, “Covalent character decreases; ionic character increases.” The table is made up of two columns and four rows. The header line is labeled “Bond type” and “Electronegativity difference.” The left column contains the phrases “Pure covalent,” “Polar covalent,” and “Ionic,” while the right column contains the values “less than 0.4,” “between 0.4 and 1.8,” and “greater than 1.8.”
Figure 4.8 As the electronegativity difference increases between two atoms, the bond becomes more ionic.

A rough approximation of the electronegativity differences associated with covalent, polar covalent, and ionic bonds is shown in Figure 4.8. 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,NO3, and NH4+,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 NO3NO3 anion. Thus, bonding in potassium nitrate is ionic, resulting from the electrostatic attraction between the ions K+ and NO3,NO3, as well as covalent between the nitrogen and oxygen atoms in NO3.NO3.

Example 4.3

Electronegativity and Bond Polarity

Bond polarities play an important role in determining the structure of proteins. Using the electronegativity values in Figure 4.6, arrange the following covalent bonds—all commonly found in amino acids—in order of increasing polarity. Then designate the positive and negative atoms using the symbols δ+ and δ–:

C–H, C–N, C–O, N–H, O–H, S–H


The polarity of these bonds increases as the absolute value of the electronegativity difference increases. The atom with the δ– designation is the more electronegative of the two. Table 4.1 shows these bonds in order of increasing polarity.
Bond Polarity and Electronegativity Difference
Bond ΔEN Polarity
C–H 0.4 CδHδ+CδHδ+
S–H 0.4 SδHδ+SδHδ+
C–N 0.5 Cδ+NδCδ+Nδ
N–H 0.9 NδHδ+NδHδ+
C–O 1.0 Cδ+OδCδ+Oδ
O–H 1.4 OδHδ+OδHδ+
Table 4.1

Check Your Learning

Silicones are polymeric compounds containing, among others, the following types of covalent bonds: Si–O, Si–C, C–H, and C–C. Using the electronegativity values in Figure 4.6, arrange the bonds in order of increasing polarity and designate the positive and negative atoms using the symbols δ+ and δ–.


Bond Electronegativity Difference Polarity
C–C 0.0 nonpolar
C–H 0.4 CδHδ+CδHδ+
Si–C 0.7 Siδ+CδSiδ+Cδ
Si–O 1.7 Siδ+OδSiδ+Oδ

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Sep 16, 2020 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.