Trends in electronegativity across a periodPolarity and Structure of Molecules

Electronegativity is a measure of the tendency of an atom to attract a bonding pair of electrons. The Pauling scale is the most commonly used. Fluorine (the most electronegative element) is assigned a value of 4.0, and values range down to cesium and francium which are the least electronegative at 0.7.

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Patterns of electronegativity in the Periodic Table

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.


Trends in electronegativity down a group

As you go down a group, electronegativity decreases. (If it increases up to fluorine, it must decrease as you go down.) The chart shows the patterns of electronegativity in Groups 1 and 7.


Why does electronegativity fall as you go down a group?

As you go down a group, electronegativity decreases because the bonding pair of electrons is increasingly distant from the attraction of the nucleus. Consider the hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen chloride molecules:


The bonding pair is shielded from the fluorine"s nucleus only by the 1s2 electrons. In the chlorine case it is shielded by all the 1s22s22p6 electrons. In each case there is a net pull from the center of the fluorine or chlorine of +7. But fluorine has the bonding pair in the 2-level rather than the 3-level as it is in chlorine. If it is closer to the nucleus, the attraction is greater.

Dipole moments occur when there is a separation of charge. They can occur between two ions in an ionic bond or between atoms in a covalent bond; dipole moments arise from differences in electronegativity. The larger the difference in electronegativity, the larger the dipole moment. The distance between the charge separation is also a deciding factor into the size of the dipole moment. The dipole moment is a measure of the polarity of the molecule.

Bond Polarity & Dipole Moment

Atoms with differences in electronegativity will share electrons unequally. The shared electrons of the covalent bond are held more tightly at the more electronegative element creating a partial negative charge, while the less electronegative element has a partial positive charge, . The larger the difference in electronegativity between the two atoms, the more polar the bond. To be considered a polar bond, the difference in electronegativity must >0.4 on the Pauling scale. Since the two electrical partial charges have opposite sign and equal magnitude and are separated by a distance, a dipole is established. Dipole moment is measured in debye units, which is equal to the distance between the charges multiplied by the charge (1 debye equals 3.34 x 10-30 coulomb-meters).

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If a molecule is completely symmetric, then the dipole moment vectors on each molecule will cancel each other out, making the molecule nonpolar. A molecule can only be polar if the structure of that molecule is not symmetric.

A good example of a nonpolar molecule that contains polar bonds is carbon dioxide. This is a linear molecule and the C=O bonds are, in fact, polar. The central carbon will have a net positive charge, and the two outer oxygens a net negative charge. However, since the molecule is linear, these two bond dipoles cancel each other out (i.e. vector addition of the dipoles equals zero). And the overall molecule has no dipole (μ=0.

Although a polar bond is a prerequisite for a molecule to have a dipole, not all molecules with polar bonds exhibit dipoles

Geometric Considerations

Example 1: Polar Bonds vs. Polar Molecules

In a simple diatomic molecule like HCl, if the bond is polar, then the whole molecule is polar. What about more complicated molecules?

Figure: (left) CCl4 (right) CHCl3

Consider CCl4, (left panel in figure above), which as a molecule is not polar - in the sense that it doesn"t have an end (or a side) which is slightly negative and one which is slightly positive. The whole of the outside of the molecule is somewhat negative, but there is no overall separation of charge from top to bottom, or from left to right.

In contrast, CHCl3 is a polar molecule (right panel in figure above). The hydrogen at the top of the molecule is less electronegative than carbon and so is slightly positive. This means that the molecule now has a slightly positive "top" and a slightly negative "bottom", and so is overall a polar molecule.

A polar molecule will need to be "lop-sided" in some way.

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Example 2: C2Cl4

Although the C–Cl bonds are rather polar, the individual bond dipoles cancel one another in this symmetrical structure, and Cl2C=CCl2 does not have a net dipole moment.