The Periodic Properties of the Elements

Trends in the Periodic Table

Graphic rendering of the periodic table of elements on a blue background.

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The periodic table arranges the elements by periodic properties, which are recurring trends in physical and chemical characteristics. These trends can be predicted merely by examing the periodic table and can be explained and understood by analyzing the electron configurations of the elements. Elements tend to gain or lose valence electrons to achieve stable octet formation. Stable octets are seen in the inert gases, or noble gases, of Group VIII of the periodic table. In addition to this activity, there are two other important trends. First, electrons are added one at a time moving from left to right across a period. As this happens, the electrons of the outermost shell experience increasingly strong nuclear attraction, so the electrons become closer to the nucleus and more tightly bound to it. Second, moving down a column in the periodic table, the outermost electrons become less tightly bound to the nucleus. This happens because the number of filled principal energy levels (which shield the outermost electrons from attraction to the nucleus) increases downward within each group. These trends explain the periodicity observed in the elemental properties of atomic radius, ionization energy, electron affinity, and electronegativity.

Atomic Radius

The atomic radius of an element is half of the distance between the centers of two atoms of that element that are just touching each other. Generally, the atomic radius decreases across a period from left to right and increases down a given group. The atoms with the largest atomic radii are located in Group I and at the bottom of groups.

Moving from left to right across a period, electrons are added one at a time to the outer energy shell. Electrons within a shell cannot shield each other from the attraction to protons. Since the number of protons is also increasing, the effective nuclear charge increases across a period. This causes the atomic radius to decrease.

Moving down a group in the periodic table, the number of electrons and filled electron shells increases, but the number of valence electrons remains the same. The outermost electrons in a group are exposed to the same effective nuclear charge, but electrons are found farther from the nucleus as the number of filled energy shells increases. Therefore, the atomic radii increase.

Ionization Energy

The ionization energy, or ionization potential, is the energy required to remove an electron from a gaseous atom or ion completely. The closer and more tightly bound an electron is to the nucleus, the more difficult it will be to remove, and the higher its ionization energy will be. The first ionization energy is the energy required to remove one electron from the parent atom. The second ionization energy is the energy required to remove a second valence electron from the univalent ion to form the divalent ion, and so on. Successive ionization energies increase. The second ionization energy is always greater than the first ionization energy. Ionization energies increase moving from left to right across a period (decreasing atomic radius). Ionization energy decreases moving down a group (increasing atomic radius). Group I elements have low ionization energies because the loss of an electron forms a stable octet.

Electron Affinity

Electron affinity reflects the ability of an atom to accept an electron. It is the energy change that occurs when an electron is added to a gaseous atom. Atoms with stronger effective nuclear charge have greater electron affinity. Some generalizations can be made about the electron affinities of certain groups in the periodic table. The Group IIA elements, the alkaline earths, have low electron affinity values. These elements are relatively stable because they have filled s subshells. Group VIIA elements, the halogens, have high electron affinities because the addition of an electron to an atom results in a completely filled shell. Group VIII elements, noble gases, have electron affinities near zero since each atom possesses a stable octet and will not accept an electron readily. Elements of other groups have low electron affinities.

In a period, the halogen will have the highest electron affinity, while the noble gas will have the lowest electron affinity. Electron affinity decreases moving down a group because a new electron would be further from the nucleus of a large atom.


Electronegativity is a measure of the attraction of an atom for the electrons in a chemical bond. The higher the electronegativity of an atom, the greater its attraction for bonding electrons. Electronegativity is related to ionization energy. Electrons with low ionization energies have low electronegativities because their nuclei do not exert a strong attractive force on electrons. Elements with high ionization energies have high electronegativities due to the strong pull exerted on electrons by the nucleus. In a group, the electronegativity decreases as the atomic number increases, as a result of the increased distance between the valence electron and nucleus (greater atomic radius). An example of an electropositive (i.e., low electronegativity) element is cesium; an example of a highly electronegative element is fluorine.

Summary of Periodic Table Properties of Elements

Moving Left → Right

  • Atomic Radius Decreases
  • Ionization Energy Increases
  • Electron Affinity Generally Increases (except Noble Gas Electron Affinity Near Zero)
  • Electronegativity Increases

Moving Top → Bottom

  • Atomic Radius Increases
  • Ionization Energy Decreases
  • Electron Affinity Generally Decreases Moving Down a Group
  • Electronegativity Decreases
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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "The Periodic Properties of the Elements." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). The Periodic Properties of the Elements. Retrieved from Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "The Periodic Properties of the Elements." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).