Reactions of Aromatic Molecules

By James Ashenhurst

Why are halogens ortho- para- directors?

Last updated: October 13th, 2020 |

The previous post in this series tried to show that the key to understanding why a substituent is an ortho-, para- director or meta– director lies in understanding how it influences the stability of the ortho-, para- and meta- carbocation intermediates.

In this post, we’ll show why halogens are ortho-, para- directors even though they are deactivating.

Table of Contents

  1. All “Activating Groups” Are ortho-, para- Directors
  2. Most “Deactivating Groups” Are meta- Directors
  3. So Why Are Halogens Ortho-,  Para- Directors?
  4. The Lone Pair Of Halogens Stabilizes Adjacent Carbocations Formed In The ortho- And para- Intermediates
  5. Notes
  6. (Advanced) References and Further Reading

1. All “Activating Groups” Are ortho-, para- Directors

In ortho- and para- addition, there’s a resonance form where the carbocation ends up directly bonded to the substituent.

In meta– addition, the carbocation ends up on the carbon adjacent to the carbon bonded to the substituent.

Any group that can donate electron density to a carbocation will be an ortho- , para- director. 

summary of ortho para directors - have resonance form with carbocation adjacent to donor - meta has no resonance form where carbocation directly attached to substituent

We’ve seen that all activating groups  (such as amines, ethers, and alkyl groups) are ortho-, para– directors.

These groups can donate electron-density to an adjacent carbocation through inductive effects (a.k.a. “sigma-donation”, as with alkyl groups) and/or pi-donation, where donation of a lone pair from an attached oxygen or nitrogen provides a key resonance form where all carbons have a full octet. Carbocations, being electron-poor, are stabilized by electron-rich neighbors.

activating groups in eas work by stabilizing adjacent carbocations through induction and pi donation

2. Most Deactivating Groups Are meta- Directors

Most deactivating groups are meta- directors. They withdraw electron-density through an adjacent carbocation through being “sigma-acceptors” (such as the electron-withdrawing CF3 group, or the ammonium [–NR3+] group) and/or “pi acceptors”, such as nitro, carbonyl, or sulfonyl groups. Carbocations are destabilized by electron-poor neighbors.

deactivating groups destabilize adjacent carbocations through inductive and pi acceptor effects

Which brings us to the peculiar case of halogens.

3. So Why Are Halogens Ortho-,  Para- Directors?

Halogens are deactivating substituents, which is to say that the rate of electrophilic aromatic substitution is lowered when a halogen replaces hydrogen (H) as a substituent. [See this earlier post on “activating vs. deactivating substituents“] . This reflects their high electronegativity, withdrawing electron density from the ring. [Note]

At first glance, this might seem to preclude them from being ortho-para directors.  But lo,  they are!

halogens are ortho para directors example chlorination of fluorobenzene

How can we rationalize this observation?

Recall that  “activating” vs. “deactivating” just compares how well a substituent stabilizes a carbocation relative to hydrogen.

That’s not the right comparison here. Just like the old joke goes, it’s not about outrunning the bear – it’s about outrunning the other guy.  

The key for a substituent being an ortho-, para- versus meta- director is the stability of the ortho- and para– carbocation intermediates versus the meta- carbocation intermediate.

4. The Lone Pair Of Halogens Stabilizes Adjacent Carbocations Formed In The ortho- And para- Intermediates

We can rationalize the ortho-, para- directing ability of halogens by noting that these atoms have attached lone pairs, and can (albeit poorly) act as pi-donors. This results in a resonance form where carbon has a full octet.

chlorine can be a pi donor stabilizing adjacent carbocation giving full octet

Note that I didn’t say “predict” – I said “rationalize” : – ) .  Rationalization involves looking backward from a result and trying to understand why something might have happened.  There are several variables at work here that tug in opposite directions, and predicting the magnitude of these individual effects in the absence of a strong computational model is a fool’s errand. That’s why we run experiments!

From these experiments, it seems that a carbocation intermediate which has a pi-donor is more important toward determining whether it is an ortho-, para- director than whether it is a strong electron withdrawing group.


Another Example Of A Deactivating Ortho-, Para- Director

Just for fun, we could take this a bit further.

Are there any other deactivating ortho-, para- directors?

Yes. NO.


Yes, NO. Nitroso.

Knowing what we now know about halogens, what predictions would you make for the nitroso group, a group that is somewhat electron withdrawing, but also bears a lone pair on the nitrogen.

nitroso is another example of deactivating ortho para director


The yields aren’t great, but there you go.

[I can’t find any papers detailing how deactivating the nitroso group is – if anyone could share a source of experimental data, I’d welcome it. ]

[Note 1] It is interesting to note, however, that despite having the highest electronegativity, fluorine is actually the most activating of the halogens (the other halogens are relatively similar in their deactivating powers). This can be attributed to the better orbital overlap of the fluorine sp3 orbitals with the 2p orbitals of the pi system. [For similar reasons, BF3 is a worse Lewis acid than BCl3 and BBr3 ,  since the fluorine orbitals overlap much better with the empty boron 2p orbital].

(Advanced) References and Further Reading

  1. A. F. Holleman, Die direkte Einführung von Substituenten in den Benzolkern
    Rec. Trav. Chim. Pays-Bas 1910, 12, 455-456
    A.F Holleman from 1910 said that orthopara orientation is associated with activation and meta orientation with deactivation.
  2. —The nature of the alternating effect in carbon chains. Part XXII. An attempt further to define the probable mechanism of orientation in aromatic substitution
    Christopher Kelk Ingold and Florence Ruth Shaw
    J. Chem. Soc. 1927, 2918-2926
    An early paper by the influential Physical Organic Chemist, Prof. C. K. Ingold, stating that halogenobenzenes are inductively electron-withdrawing but simultaneously resonance-stabilizing.
  3. Influence of directing groups on nuclear reactivity in oriented aromatic substitutions. Part IV. Nitration of the halogenobenzenes
    Marjorie L. Bird and Christopher K. Ingold
    J. Chem. Soc. 1938, 918-929
    The relative rates of nitration for the halobenzenes are determined here, and it is seen that the order of reactivity is PhF>PhI>PhCl, PhBr
  4. The Anomalous Reactivity of Fluorobenzene in Electrophilic Aromatic Substitution and Related Phenomena
    Joel Rosenthal and David I. Schuster
    Journal of Chemical Education 2003, 80 (6), 679
    A very interesting paper, suitable for curious undergrads, and discusses something that most practicing organic chemists will know empirically – fluorobenzene is almost as reactive as benzene in EAS or Friedel-Crafts reactions, which is counterintuitive when one considers electronic effects.
  5. —A new orientation rule and the anomaly of the nitroso-group
    Dalziel Llewellyn Hammick and Walter S. Illingworth
    J. Chem. Soc. 1930, 2358-2364
  6. 93. The orienting power of the nitroso-group
    Dalziel Ll. Hammick, Randal G. A. New, and Leslie E. Sutton
    J. Chem. Soc. 1932, 742-748
    DOI: 10.1039/JR9320000742
    These two papers discuss the electronics of the nitroso substituent. Both papers refer to C. K. Ingold’s experiment where he observed p-substitution of nitrosobenzene from bromination in CS2. The authors attempt to explain this by suggesting that in certain solvents nitrosobenzene dimerizes, and the dimer prefers o,p-substitution. This is worth reevaluating with modern methods (hint, hint)!



Comment section

5 thoughts on “Why are halogens ortho- para- directors?

  1. The left structure in the figure with the Cl acting as an e-donor on the benzene ring during EArS has too many e around the Cl. One of the lone pairs has been used in the resonance interaction….

  2. In the fifth figure from top, chlorine is shown to suffer positive charge. With 3 electron pairs as well as a double bond, how chlorine can become electron deficient?

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