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Cahn-Ingold-Prelog priority rule


The Cahn-Ingold-Prelog priority rules, CIP system or CIP conventions are a set of rules used in organic chemistry to name the stereoisomers of a molecule. A molecule may contain any number of stereocenters and any number of double bonds, and each gives rise to two possible configurations. The purpose of the CIP system is to assign an R or S descriptor to each stereocenter and an E or Z descriptor to each double bond so that the configuration of the entire molecule can be specified uniquely by including the descriptors in its systematic name.

The Cahn-Ingold-Prelog rules are distinctly different from those of other naming conventions, such as general IUPAC nomenclature, since they are designed for the specific task of naming stereoisomers rather than the general classification and description of compounds.

The steps for naming molecules using the CIP system are often presented as:

  1. Identification of stereocenters and double bonds
  2. Assignment of priorities to the groups attached to each stereocenter or double-bonded atom
  3. Assignment of R/S and E/Z descriptors


Assignment of priorities

R/S and E/Z descriptors are assigned by reference to a priority ranking of the groups attached to each stereocenter (or double-bonded atom, henceforth). The procedure for assigning these priorities (also known as the sequence rule) is the heart of the CIP system.

Two groups are compared first by atomic number of the atoms directly attached to the stereocenter; the group having the atom of higher atomic number receives higher priority. If there is a tie, a list is made for each group of the atoms bonded to the one directly attached to the stereocenter, i.e., the atoms at distance 2 from the stereocenter. Each list is arranged in order of decreasing atomic number. Then the lists are compared atom by atom; at the earliest difference, the group containing the atom of higher atomic number receives higher priority. If there is still a tie, each atom in each of the two lists is replaced with a sub-list of the other atoms bonded to it (at distance 3 from the stereocenter), the sub-lists are arranged in decreasing order of atomic number, and the entire structure is again compared atom by atom. This process is repeated, each time with atoms one bond farther from the stereocenter, until the tie is broken.

Some examples will help to illustrate the subtleties of this procedure:

  • -OH > -CH3. The -OH groups directly attached to oxygen have a higher atomic number (8) than the -CH3 groups directly attached to carbon (6).
  • -CH(OH)CH3 > -CH2OH. The directly attached atoms are both carbon, but the distance-2 lists differ: they are (O, C, H) and (O, H, H), respectively. The earliest difference is in the second slot, where the carbon atom of -CH(OH)CH3 takes priority over the hydrogen atom of -CH2OH.
  • -CH(OCH3)CH3 > -CH(OH)CH2OH. The distance-2 lists are both (O, C, H), a tie. Replacing each atom with a list of its neighbors, we obtain the distance-3 lists: ((C), (H, H, H), ( )) and ((H), (O, H, H), ( )). The earliest difference is in the atom bonded to the distance-2 oxygen: -CH(OCH3)CH3's carbon outranks -CH(OH)CH2OH's hydrogen. It is irrelevant that the oxygen in the second list outranks the corresponding hydrogen in the first list.
  • -CH(CH2F)OCH3 > -CH(CH3)OCH2F. The distance-3 fluorine in -CH(CH2F)OCH3 outranks the hydrogens in -CH(CH3)OCH2F. One might reason that the distance-4 fluorine in -CH(CH3)OCH2F outranks the hydrogens in -CH(CH2F)OCH3 at an earlier point in the list once atoms are arranged by decreasing atomic number, but this is irrelevant because the tie is already broken at distance 3.


If two groups differ only in isotopes, mass numbers are used at each step to break ties in atomic number.


  • -CDH2 > -CH3. The distance-2 lists are (D, H, H) and (H, H, H); the deuterium in -CDH2 outranks the hydrogen in -CH3.
  • -C(OD)CH3 > -C(OH)CTH2. The distance-2 lists are both (O, C, H), and the distance-3 lists are ((D), (H, H, H), ( )) and ((H), (T, H, H), ( )); the deuterium outranks the hydrogen.
  • -CH2CH2CH3 > -CDHCH3. There is a difference in elements (not just isotopes), so the groups are compared solely by atomic number, and -CH2CH2CH3 takes priority at distance 3. It is irrelevant that -CDHCH3 has a deuterium at distance 2 where -CH2CH2CH3 has a hydrogen.

Double and triple bonds

If an atom A is double-bonded to an atom B, A is treated as being singly bonded to two atoms: B and a ghost atom that has the same atomic number as B but is not attached to anything except A. In turn, when B is replaced with a list of attached atoms, A itself is excluded in accordance with the general principle of not doubling back along a bond that has just been followed, but a ghost atom for A is included so that the double bond is properly represented from both ends.


  • -CH=O > -CH2OH. The distance-2 lists are (O, ghost O, H) and (O, H, H); the ghost oxygen outranks the hydrogen.
  • -CH(OCH3)2 > -CH=O. The distance-2 lists are (O, O, H) and (O, ghost O, H). This is a tie, but at distance 3, nothing else is attached to the ghost oxygen, so it loses to the second oxygen of -CH(OCH3)2; the lists are ((C), (C), ( )) and ((ghost C), ( ), ( )).
  • -CH=CH2 > -CH(CH3)2. The distance-2 lists are (C, ghost C, H) and (C, C, H), a tie. However, at distance 3, the lists are ((ghost C, H, H), ( ), ( )) and ((H, H, H), (H, H, H), ( )); the ghost carbon representing the reverse direction of -CH=CH2's double bond outranks -CH(CH3)2's hydrogens.

A triple bond is handled the same way except that A and B each carry two ghost atoms instead of one.


To handle a molecule containing one or more cycles, one must first expand it into a tree (called a hierarchical digraph by the authors) by traversing bonds in all possible paths starting at the stereocenter. When the traversal encounters an atom through which the current path has already passed, a ghost atom is generated in order to keep the tree finite. A single atom of the original molecule may appear in many places (some as ghosts, some not) in the tree.

Assigning descriptors

Stereocenters: R/S

After the substituents of a stereocenter have been assigned their priorities, the molecule is so oriented in space that the group with the lowest priority is pointed away from the observer. If the substituents are numbered from 1 (lowest priority) to 4 (highest priority), then the sense of rotation of a curve passing through 4, 3 and 2 distinguishes the stereoisomers. A center with a clockwise sense of rotation is an R or rectus center and a center with a counterclockwise sense of rotation is an S or sinister center. The names are derived from the Latin for right and left, respectively.

Double bonds: E/Z

For alkenes and similar double bonded molecules, the same prioritizing process is followed for the substituents. In this case, it is the placing of the two highest priority substituents with respect to the double bond which matters. If both high priority substituents are on the same side of the double bond, ie. in the cis configuration, then the stereoisomer is assigned a Z or Zusammen configuration. If, by contrast they are in a trans configuration, then the stereoisomer is assigned an E or Entgegen configuration. In this case the identifying letters are derived from German for 'together' and 'in opposition to', respectively.

Multiple descriptors in one molecule

It is important to note that there can be more than one of each type of system requiring assignment in a particular molecule. For example, ephedrine exists in both 1-(R), 2-(S) and 1-(S), 2-(R) forms. A compound with the same formula also exists in 1-(R), 2-(R) and 1-(S), 2-(S). Said stereoisomers are not ephedrine, but pseudoephedrine. They are chemically distinct from ephedrine, with only the three dimensional configuration in space, as notated by the Cahn-Ingold-Prelog rules to distinguish them in systematic nomenclature (both are 2-methylamino-1-phenyl-1-propanol in systematic nomenclature). The ephedrine enantiomers are referred to as being diastereoisomers of the pseudoephedrine enantiomers. In general where there are n stereocenters, there will be 2n stereoisomers possible. However, often there are situations where some of these stereoisomers are superposable, reducing the number of different molecules which actually exist.


Stereochemistry also plays a role assigning faces to trigonal molecules such as ketones. A nucleophile in a nucleophilic addition can approach the carbonyl group from two opposite sides or faces. When an achiral nucleophile attacks acetone, both faces are identical and there is only one reaction product. When the nucleophile attacks butanone, the faces are not identical (enantiotopic) and a racemic product results. When the nucleophile is a chiral molecule diastereoisomers are formed. When one face of a molecule is shielded by substituents or geometric constraints compared to the other face the faces are called diastereotopic. The same rules that determine the stereochemistry of a stereocenter (R or S) also apply when assigning the face of a molecular group. The faces are then called the re-faces and si-faces. In the example displayed on the right, the compound acetophenone is viewed from the re face. Hydride addition as in a reduction process from this side will form the S-enantiomer and attack from the opposite Si face will give the R-enantiomer.


The following two papers define the CIP system. The papers provide a number of additional rules beyond the main points covered above, including rules for breaking priority ties in complex cases (such as when two groups attached to a stereocenter differ only in their own stereochemical configurations) and describing less common forms of stereoisomerism (such as chiral axes and planes).

Other references:

  • J. March. Advanced Organic Chemistry 3Ed. ISBN 0-471-85472-7
  • IUPAC Rules for the Nomenclature of Organic Chemistry. Section E, Stereochemistry (Recommendations 1974). [1]
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Cahn-Ingold-Prelog_priority_rule". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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