The surface modification of polyethylene in a remote nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen dc discharge plasma was investigated. In the case of the nitrogen plasma a strong correlation exists between the concentration of active nitrogen species, as detected by Langmuir probe measurements and plasma emission spectroscopy, and the time dependence of the polymer surface modification, as detected by contact-angle measurements. The obtained contact-angle data were interpreted in terms of the acid–base model for the interaction of the test liquid with the polymer surface. There was a great similarity in the functionalization of the polyethylene surfaces treated with nitrogen as well as with oxygen plasma, except in the intial stage, where in the former, mainly functional groups acting as electron acceptors were formed, whereas in the latter a sharp increase in the content of both electron donor as well as electron acceptor groups was detected. Thus, a determining influence of oxygen residues in the remote nitrogen plasma was indicated. The absence of such an effect in the case of the hydrogen plasma could result from direct quenching of reactive oxygen species and / or the chemical reduction of formed oxygen containing functionalities by hydrogen species. © 1993 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.