I'm learning how to apply the VSEPR theory to Lewis structures and in my homework, I'm being asked to provide the hybridization of the central atom in each Lewis structure I've drawn.

I've drawn out the Lewis structure for all the required compounds and figured out the arrangements of the electron regions, and figured out the shape of each molecule. I'm being asked to figure out the hybridization of the central atom of various molecules.

I found a sample question with all the answers filled out: $\ce{NH3}$

It is $\mathrm{sp^3}$ hybridized.

Where does this come from? I understand how to figure out the standard orbitals for an atom, but I'm lost with hybridization.

My textbook uses $\ce{CH4}$ as an example. Carbon has $\mathrm{2s^2 \,2p^2}$, but in this molecule, it has four $\mathrm{sp^3}$. I understand the purpose of four (there are four hydrogens), but where did the "3" in $\mathrm{sp^3}$ come from?

How would I figure out something more complicated like $\ce{H2CO}$?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In multiatom molecules, you have hybridized orbitals of the whole molecule. For example, I learned in Physical Inorganic Chemistry that in a nitrogen molecule, each p orbital of one atom hybridizes with a p orbital of the other atom to form a bonding orbital and an antibonding orbital, neither of which belongs distinctly to one atom. I think that in theory, even if you don't know much about a topic, it's possible for you to figure out given what's the truth about that topic what type of answer you would want and make it clear in your question. This is just an idea. I'm not telling you to do it $\endgroup$
    – Timothy
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 3:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Multi is not Di Your explanation may explain N2 but fails when extended to isoelectronic CO. s character is important because it allows closer penetration to the nuclei for the bonding electrons. This brings nuclei closer and sp orbitals allow p orbital overlap in pi bonds. $\endgroup$
    – jimchmst
    Commented Mar 28 at 22:05

4 Answers 4


If you can assign the total electron geometry (geometry of all electron domains, not just bonding domains) on the central atom using VSEPR, then you can always automatically assign hybridization. Hybridization was invented to make quantum mechanical bonding theories work better with known empirical geometries. If you know one, then you always know the other.

  • Linear - $\ce{sp}$ - the hybridization of one $\ce{s}$ and one $\ce{p}$ orbital produce two hybrid orbitals oriented $180^\circ$ apart.
  • Trigonal planar - $\ce{sp^2}$ - the hybridization of one $\ce{s}$ and two $\ce{p}$ orbitals produce three hybrid orbitals oriented $120^\circ$ from each other all in the same plane.
  • Tetrahedral - $\ce{sp^3}$ - the hybridization of one $\ce{s}$ and three $\ce{p}$ orbitals produce four hybrid orbitals oriented toward the points of a regular tetrahedron, $109.5^\circ$ apart.
  • Trigonal bipyramidal - $\ce{dsp^3}$ or $\ce{sp^3d}$ - the hybridization of one $\ce{s}$, three $\ce{p}$, and one $\ce{d}$ orbitals produce five hybrid orbitals oriented in this weird shape: three equatorial hybrid orbitals oriented $120^\circ$ from each other all in the same plane and two axial orbitals oriented $180^\circ$ apart, orthogonal to the equatorial orbitals.
  • Octahedral - $\ce{d^2sp^3}$ or $\ce{sp^3d^2}$ - the hybridization of one $\ce{s}$, three $\ce{p}$, and two $\ce{d}$ orbitals produce six hybrid orbitals oriented toward the points of a regular octahedron $90^\circ$ apart.

I assume you haven't learned any of the geometries above steric number 6 (since they are rare), but they each correspond to a specific hybridization also.


For $\ce{NH3}$, which category does it fit in above? Remember to count the lone pair as an electron domain for determining total electron geometry. Since the sample question says $\ce{NH3}$ is $\ce{sp^3}$, then $\ce{NH3}$ must be tetrahedral. Make sure you can figure out how $\ce{NH3}$ has tetrahedral electron geometry.

For $\ce{H2CO}$

  1. Start by drawing the Lewis structure. The least electronegative atom that is not a hydrogen goes in the center (unless you have been given structural arrangement).
  2. Determine the number of electron domains on the central atom.
  3. Determine the electron geometry using VSEPR. Correlate the geometry with the hybridization.
  4. Practice until you can do this quickly.
  • $\begingroup$ If you know the geometry by VSEPR, then why bother to assign hybridization? What purpose does it fulfill? And as far as I know, quantum mechanics is the final word in chemistry so there isn't any need to "make it work". It already works. $\endgroup$
    – Juan Perez
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 19:48

Hybridization is given by the following formula: $$H= \frac{1}{2} (V + X - C + A)$$ Where:

  • $V$ = number of valence electrons in central atom
  • $X$ = number of monovalent atoms around the central atom
  • $C$ = positive charge on cation
  • $A$ = negative charge on anion

$$H=4 \to \ce{sp^3},\;2\to \ce{sp,\;3}\to \ce{sp^2}...$$

e.g.: in $\ce{NH3}$, the hybridization of $\ce{N}$ atom is: $$H= \frac{1}{2}(5+3-0+0)=4 \to \ce{sp^3}$$

  • 15
    $\begingroup$ @user12757 The problem with this method is that is does not always predict the correct hybridization. For example, $\ce{PH3}$ is not $\ce{sp^3}$ hybridized; it is basically unhybridized with an H-P-H angle around 90° $\endgroup$
    – ron
    Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 17:34
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @ron Wouldn't the currently accepted answer also suffer from the same fault? Unless anyone actually knows that the phosphorus in phosphine is unhybridized, they will always end up counting one lone pair and three sigma bonds for $sp3$ hybridisation... $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ @GaurangTandon Yes, it would. $\endgroup$
    – ron
    Commented Jan 25, 2018 at 16:05

You can find the hybridization of an atom by finding its steric number:

The steric number = the number of atoms bonded to the atom + the number of lone pairs the atom has.

If the steric number is 4, the atom is $\mathrm{sp^3}$ hybridized.

If the steric number is 3, the atom is $\mathrm{sp^2}$ hybridized.

If the steric number is 2, the atom is $\mathrm{sp}$ hybridized.


You can find the hybridization by the AXE method; Here A represents the atom that we're interested in (usually the central atom), X is the number of atoms bonded to the central molecule or the one we're interested in, and E represents the non-bonding electrons (lone pairs). The total number of X and E is known as the steric number.

Formula Shape (Name) Bond Angles Hybridization
AX2 Linear 180° sp
AX3 Trigonal Planar 120° sp²
AX4 Tetrahedral 109.5° sp³
AX5 Triangular Bipyrimidal 120,90° sp³d
AX6 Octahedral 90° sp³d²
AX2N Bent 120° sp²
AX2N2 Bent 109.5° sp³
AX3N Trigonal Pyramidal 109.5° sp³

You can also find hybridisation by the empirical formula $$\frac{1}{2}(V + H - C + A)$$ Where,

  • V = Number of valance electrons in central atom
  • H = Number of surrounding monovalent atoms
  • C = Cationic charge
  • A = Anionic charge
  • Now try to figure out the hybridization of ethane yourself. Refer to this otherwise.


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