Nomenclature for Covalent or Molecular Compounds

A plastic sulfur dioxide molecule model
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Molecular compounds or covalent compounds are those in which the elements share electrons via covalent bonds. The only type of molecular compound a chemistry student is expected to be able to name is a binary covalent compound. This is a covalent compound made up of only two different elements.

Identifying Molecular Compounds

Molecular compounds contain two or more nonmetals (not the ammonium ion). Usually, you can recognize a molecular compound because the first element in the compound name is a nonmetal. Some molecular compounds contain hydrogen, however, if you see a compound which starts with "H", you can assume it is an acid and not a molecular compound. Compounds consisting only of carbon with hydrogen are called hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons have their own special nomenclature, so they are treated differently from other molecular compounds.

Writing Formulas for Covalent Compounds

Certain rules apply to the way names of covalent compounds are written:

  • The more electropositive element (further left on the periodic table) is listed before the more electronegative element (further right on the periodic table).
  • The second element is given an -ide ending.
  • Prefixes are used to denote how many atoms of each element are present in the compound.

Prefixes and Molecular Compound Names

Nonmetals may combine in a variety of ratios, so it is important that the name of a molecular compound indicates how many atoms of each type of element are present in the compound. This is accomplished using prefixes. If there is only one atom of the first element, no prefix is used. It is customary to prefix the name of one atom of the second element with mono-. For example, CO is named carbon monoxide rather than carbon oxide.

Examples of Covalent Compound Names

SO2 - sulfur dioxide
SF6 - sulfur hexafluoride
CCl4 - carbon tetrachloride
NI3 - nitrogen triiodide

Writing the Formula From the Name

You can write the formula for a covalent compound from its name by writing the symbols for the first and second elements and translating the prefixes into subscripts. For example, xenon hexafluoride would be written XF6. It is common for students to have trouble writing formulae from compounds names as ionic compounds and covalent compounds are often confused. You aren't balancing charges of covalent compounds; if the compound does not contain a metal, don't try to balance this!

Molecular Compound Prefixes

Number Prefix
1 mono-
2 di-
3 tri-
4 tetra-
5 penta-
6 hexa-
7 hepta-
8 octa-
9 nona-
10 deca-
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Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Nomenclature for Covalent or Molecular Compounds." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). Nomenclature for Covalent or Molecular Compounds. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Nomenclature for Covalent or Molecular Compounds." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).