The Difference Between a Cation and an Anion

Illustrated cation and anion


Cations and anions are both ions. The difference between a cation and an anion is the net electrical charge of the ion.

Ions are atoms or molecules which have gained or lost one or more valence electrons, giving the ion a net positive or negative charge. If the chemical species has more protons than electrons, it carries a net positive charge. If there are more electrons than protons, the species has a negative charge. The number of neutrons determines the isotope of an element but does not affect the electrical charge.

Cation Versus Anion

Cations are ions with a net positive charge.

Cation Examples:

  • Silver: Ag+
  • Hydronium: H3O+
  • Ammonium: NH4+

Anions are ions with a net negative charge.

Anion Examples:

  • Hydroxide anion: OH-
  • Oxide anion: O2-
  • Sulfate anion: SO42-

Because they have opposite electrical charges, cations and anions are attracted to each other. Cations repel other cations and anions repel other anions.

Predicting Cations and Anions

Sometimes, you can predict whether an atom will form a cation or an anion based on its position on the periodic table. Alkali metals and alkaline earth metals always form cations. Halogens always form anions. Most other nonmetals typically form anions (e.g. oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur), while most metals form cations (e.g. iron, gold, mercury).

Writing Chemical Formulas

When writing the formula of a compound, the cation is listed before the anion. For example, in NaCl, the sodium atom acts as the cation, while the chlorine atom acts as the anion.

When writing cation or anion symbols, the element symbol(s) is listed first. The charge is written as a superscript following the chemical formula.

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Your Citation
Helmenstine, Todd. "The Difference Between a Cation and an Anion." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Helmenstine, Todd. (2020, August 27). The Difference Between a Cation and an Anion. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Todd. "The Difference Between a Cation and an Anion." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).