The molecular formula shows the actual number of atoms of each element in a molecule.

The empirical formula shows the simplest whole number ratio of atoms present in a compound. So the molecular formula is a multiple of the empirical formula.

The general formula shows the relationship between the number of atoms of one element to another within a molecule. Members of a homologous series share the same general formula. The general formula for alkanes is CnH2n+2 and the general formula for alkenes is CnH2n.

A structural formula shows how the atoms in a molecule are joined together.

The displayed formula is a full structural formula which shows all the bonds in a molecule as individual lines.


The terms above are demonstrated with the example of butane.

Image result for butane

  • Displayed formula:
  • Molecular formula: C₄H₁₀
  • Empirical formula: C₂H₅
  • General formula (alkanes): CnH2n+2
  • Structural formula: CH₃ – CH₂ – CH₂ – CH₃


The terms above are demonstrated with the example of ethene, which contains a double bond.

Image result for ethene

  • Displayed formula:
  • Molecular formula: C₂H₄
  • Empirical formula: CH₂
  • General formula (alkenes): CnH2n
  • Structural formula: CH₂ = CH₂