Atoms are assigned numbers, called valence numbers, oxidation numbers, or oxidation states, which range in value from - 4 through 0 to +7 and describe the combining behavior of the atoms in chemical reactions, particularly oxidation-reduction reactions (see oxidation and reduction). Metals, which commonly donate electrons and form compounds in which they exist in the positive, or cationic, state, are assigned positive oxidation numbers (see cation). For a metal such as zinc, which donates two electrons to achieve a stable electron configuration, the oxidation number is +2. Nonmetals, which commonly accept electrons and in compounds exist in the negative, or anionic, state, are assigned negative oxidation numbers (see anion). The oxidation number is - 1 for chlorine and the other halogens, which accept one electron to complete their valence shell.
Some elements, like the transition metals, have electron configurations in which electrons from their inner shells can also be used as valence electrons; these elements can have several different oxidation states. For example, iron can have a valence of +2 or +3, and chromium can have a valence of +2, +3, or +6. Iron in the +3 oxidation state, Fe+3, acts as an oxidizing agent, accepting one electron to attain the Fe+2 state, while ferrous iron, Fe+2, by donating an electron in going to the +3 state, acts as a reducing agent.