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Nomenclature of Coordination Complexes

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  • Learning Objectives

    • To learn the basis for complex ion and compound nomenclature

    Coordination complexes have their own classes of isomers, different magnetic properties and colors, and various applications (photography, cancer treatment, etc), so it makes sense that they would have a naming system as well. Consisting of a metal and ligands, their formulas follow the pattern [Metal ligands]±Charge, while names are written Prefix Ligands Metal (Oxidation State).


    According to the Lewis base theory, ligands are Lewis bases since they can donate electrons to the central metal atom. The metals, in turn, are Lewis acids since they accept electrons. Coordination complexes consist of a ligand and a metal center cation. The overall charge can be positive, negative, or neutral. Coordination compounds are complex or contain complex ions, for example:

    • Complex Cation: \(\ce{[Co(NH3)6]^{3+}}\)
    • Complex Anion: \(\ce{[CoCl4(NH3)2]^{-}}\)
    • Neutral Complex: \(\ce{[CoCl3(NH3)3]}\)
    • Coordination Compound: \(\ce{K4[Fe(CN)6]}\)

    A ligand can be an anion or a neutral molecule that donates an electron pair to the complex (NH3, H2O, Cl-). The number of ligands that attach to a metal depends on whether the ligand is monodentate or polydentate. To begin naming coordination complexes, here are some things to keep in mind.

    1. Ligands are named first in alphabetical order.
    2. The name of the metal comes next.
    3. The oxidation state of the metal follows, noted by a Roman numeral in parentheses (II, IV).

    Rule 1: Anionic Ligands

    Ligands that act as anions which end in "-ide" are replaced with an ending "-o" (e.g., Chloride → Chloro). Anions ending with "-ite" and "-ate" are replaced with endings "-ito" and "-ato" respectively (e.g., Nitrite → Nitrito, Nitrate → Nitrato).

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Anionic Monodentate Ligands
    Molecular Formula Ligand Name Molecular Formula Ligand Name
    F- Fluoro OH- Hydroxo
    Cl- Chloro SO42- Sulfato
    Br- Bromo S2O32- Thiosulfato
    I- Iodo NO2- Nitrito-N-; Nitro
    O2- Oxo ONO- Nitrito-O-; Nitrito
    CN- Cyano SCN- Thiocyanato-S-; Thiocyanato
    NC- Isocyano NCS- Thiocyanato-N-; Isothiocyanato

    Rule 2: Neutral Ligands

    Most neutral molecules that are ligands carry their normal name. The few exceptions are the first four on the chart: ammine, aqua, carbonyl, and nitrosyl.

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Select Neutral Monodentate Ligands. Note: Ammine is spelled with two m's when referring to a ligand. Amines are a class of organic nitrogen-containing compounds.
    Molecular Formula of Ligand Ligand Name
    NH3 Ammine
    H2O Aqua
    CO Carbonyl
    NO Nitrosyl
    CH3NH2 Methylamine
    C5H5N Pyridine

    Polydentate ligands follow the same rules for anions and neutral molecules.

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\): Select Polydentate ligands
    Short name Extended name
    en Ethylenediamine
    ox2- Oxalato
    EDTA4- Ethylenediaminetetraacetato

    Rule 3: Ligand Multiplicity

    The number of ligands present in the complex is indicated with the prefixes di, tri, etc. The exceptions are polydentates that have a prefix already in their name (en and EDTA4- are the most common). When indicating how many of these are present in a coordination complex, put the ligand's name in parentheses and use bis (for two ligands), tris (for three ligands), and tetrakis (for four ligands).

    Table \(\PageIndex{4}\): Prefixes for indicating number of ligands in a complex.
    Number of Ligands Monodentate Ligands Polydentate Ligands
    1 mono -
    2 di bis
    3 tri tris
    4 tetra tetrakis
    5 penta pentakis
    6 hexa hexakis

    Prefixes always go before the ligand name; they are not taken into account when putting ligands in alphabetical order. Note that "mono" often is not used. For example, \(\ce{[FeCl(CO)2(NH3)3]^{2+}}\) would be called triamminedicarbonylchloroiron(III) ion. Remember that ligands are always named first, before the metal is.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    What is the name of this complex ion: \(\ce{[CrCl2(H2O)4]^{+}}\)?


    Let's start by identifying the ligands. The ligands here are Cl and H2O. Therefore, we will use the monodentate ligand names of "chloro" and "aqua". Alphabetically, aqua comes before chloro, so this will be their order in the complex's name. There are 4 aqua's and 2 chloro's, so we will add the number prefixes before the names. Since both are monodentate ligands, we will say "tetra[aqua]di[chloro]".

    Now that the ligands are named, we will name the metal itself. The metal is Cr, which is chromium. Therefore, this coordination complex is called tetraaquadichlorochromium(III) ion. See the next section for an explanation of the (III).

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    What is the name of this complex ion: \(\ce{[CoCl_2(en)_2]^{+}}\)?


    We take the same approach. There are two chloro and ethylenediamine ligands. The metal is Co, cobalt. We follow the same steps, except that \(en\) is a polydentate ligand with a prefix in its name (ethylenediamine), so "bis" is used instead of "di", and parentheses are added. Therefore, this coordination complex is called dichlorobis(ethylenediamine)cobalt(III) ion.

    Rule 4: The Metals

    When naming the metal center, you must know the formal metal name and the oxidation state. To show the oxidation state, we use Roman numerals inside parenthesis. For example, in the problems above, chromium and cobalt have the oxidation state of +3, so that is why they have (III) after them. Copper, with an oxidation state of +2, is denoted as copper(II). If the overall coordination complex is an anion, the ending "-ate" is attached to the metal center. Some metals also change to their Latin names in this situation. Copper +2 will change into cuprate(II). The following change to their Latin names when part of an anion complex:

    Table \(\PageIndex{5}\): Latin terms for Select Metal Ion
    Transition Metal Latin
    Iron Ferrate
    Copper Cuprate
    Tin Stannate
    Silver Argentate
    Lead Plumbate
    Gold Aurate

    The rest of the metals simply have -ate added to the end (cobaltate, nickelate, zincate, osmate, cadmate, platinate, mercurate, etc. Note that the -ate tends to replace -um or -ium, if present).

    Finally, when a complex has an overall charge, "ion" is written after it. This is not necessary if it is neutral or part of a coordination compound (Example \(\PageIndex{3}\)). Here are some examples with determining oxidation states, naming a metal in an anion complex, and naming coordination compounds.

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    What is the name of [Cr(OH)4]- ?


    Immediately we know that this complex is an anion. There is only one monodentate ligand, hydroxide. There are four of them, so we will use the name "tetrahydroxo". The metal is chromium, but since the complex is an anion, we will have to use the "-ate" ending, yielding "chromate". The oxidation state of the metal is 3 (x+(-1)4=-1). Write this with Roman numerals and parentheses (III) and place it after the metal to get tetrahydroxochromate(III) ion.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    What is the name of \(\ce{[CuCl4]^{2-}}\)?


    tetrachlorocuprate(II) ion

    A last little side note: when naming a coordination compound, it is important that you name the cation first, then the anion. You base this on the charge of the ligand. Think of NaCl. Na, the positive cation, comes first and Cl, the negative anion, follows.

    Example \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    What is the name of \([\ce{Pt(NH3)4}][\ce{Pt(Cl)4}]\)?


    NH3 is neutral, making the first complex positively charged overall. Cl has a -1 charge, making the second complex the anion. Therefore, you will write the complex with NH3 first, followed by the one with Cl (the same order as the formula). This coordination compound is called tetraammineplatinum(II) tetrachloroplatinate(II).

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\): The Nitro/Nitrito Ambidentate Ligand

    What is the name of \(\ce{[CoCl(NO2)(NH3)4]^{+}}\) ?


    This coordination complex is called tetraamminechloronitrito-N-cobalt(III). N comes before the O in the symbol for the nitrite ligand, so it is called nitrito-N. If an O came first, as in [CoCl(ONO)(NH3)4]+, the ligand would be called nitrito-O, yielding the name tetraamminechloronitrito-O-cobalt(III).

    Nitro (for NO2) and nitrito (for ONO) can also be used to describe the nitrite ligand, yielding the names tetraamminechloronitrocobalt(III) and tetraamminechloronitritocobalt(III).

    Writing Formulas of Coordination Complexes

    While chemistry typically follow the nomenclature rules for naming complexes and compounds, there is disagreement with the rules for constructing formulas of inorganic complex. The order of ligand names in their formula has been ambiguous with different conventions being used (charged vs neutral, number of each ligand, etc.). In 2005, IUPAC adopted the recommendation that all ligand names in formulas be listed alphabetically (in the same way as in the naming convention) irrespective of the charge or number of each ligand type.

    However, this rule is not adhered to in many chemistry laboratories. For practice, the order of the ligands in chemical formulas does not matter as long as you write the transition metal first, which is the stance taken here.

    Examples \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Write the chemical formulas for:

    1. Amminetetraaquachromium(II) ion
    2. Amminesulfatochromium(II)


    1. Amminetetraaquachromium(II) ion could be written as \(\ce{[Cr(H2O)4(NH3)]^{+2}}\) or \(\ce{[Cr(NH3)(H2O)4]^{+2}}\). 
    2. Amminesulfatochromium (II) could be written as \(\ce{[Cr(SO4)(NH3)]}\) or \(\ce{[Cr(NH3)(SO4)]}\).

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Write the chemical formulas for

    1. Amminetetraaquachromium (II) sulfate
    2. Potassium hexacyanoferrate (III)
    1. Amminetetraaquachromium (II) sulfate can be written as \(\ce{[Cr(H2O)4(NH3)]SO4}\). Although \(\ce{[Cr(NH3)(H2O)4]SO4}\) is also acceptable.
    2. Potassium hexacyanoferrate (III) is be written as \(\ce{K3[Fe(CN)6]}\)


    1. Petrucci, Ralph H. General Chemistry Principles and Modern Applications. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2002.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Justin Hosung Lee (UCD), Sophia Muller (UCD)
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