Path (computing)

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A path is the general form of a file or directory name, specifying a unique location in a file system. A path points to a file system location by following the directory tree hierarchy expressed in a string of characters in which path components, separated by a delimiting character, represent each directory. The delimiting character is most commonly the slash ("/"), the backslash character ("\"), or colon (":"), though some operating systems may use a different delimiter. Paths are used extensively in computer science to represent the directory/file relationships common in modern operating systems, and are essential in the construction of Uniform Resource Locators (URLs).

A path can be either absolute or relative. A full path or absolute path is a path that points to the same location on one file system regardless of the working directory or combined paths. It is usually written in reference to a root directory.

A relative path is a path relative to the working directory of the user or application, so the full absolute path may not need to be given.


[edit] Representations of paths by operating system and shell

Operating System Shell Root Directory Directory Separator Parent Directory Examples
Unix-like OS Unix shell / / .. /home/user/docs/Letter.txt
DOS COMMAND.COM [drive letter]:\ / or \ .. C:\USER\DOCS\LETTER.TXT
OS/2 cmd.exe [drive letter]:\ / or \ .. C:\user\docs\Letter.txt
Microsoft Windows cmd.exe [drive letter]:/ or [drive letter]:\ note: for CD command, / treated as relative path (same as [drive letter]:.\) / or \ note: for CD command, / treated as relative path (same as .\) .. C:\user\docs\Letter.txt
Microsoft Windows Windows PowerShell [drive name]:/ or [drive name]:\ or

[PSSnapIn name]\[PSProvider name]::[PSDrive root]

/ or \ .. C:\user\docs\Letter.txt
TOPS-20 DCL [device name]: . PS:<USER.DOCS>LETTER.TXT,4
RSX-11 DCL [device name]: DR0:[30,12]LETTER.TXT;4
OpenVMS DCL [device name]: or

[NODE"accountname password"]::[device name]:

Classic Mac OS [drive name]: :
AmigaOS Amiga CLI / AmigaShell [drive, volume or assign name]: / /
RISC OS Task window [fs type]::[drive number or disc name].$ .
Symbian OS File manager \ \ \user\docs\Letter.txt
Domain/OS Shell // /
MenuetOS/KolibriOS CMD / /
Stratus VOS VOS command-line interpreter %[system_name]#[module_name]> > <

On Japanese and Korean versions of Windows it may often look like the '¥' character or the '' character is the path separator. This is not true however, instead the code for backslash is being drawn as these characters. Very early versions of MS-DOS replaced the backslash with these glyphs on the display to make it possible to display them by programs that only understood 7-bit ASCII (other characters such as the square brackets were replaced as well, see ISO 646, Windows Codepage 932 (Japanese Shift JIS), and Codepage 949 (Korean)). This predates the addition of paths in MS-DOS 2 and is a good indication that Microsoft never intended backslash to be the path separator, as a normal slash would display correctly. Although even the first version of Windows supported the 8-bit ISO-8859-1 character set which has the Yen sign at U+00A5, and modern versions of Windows supports Unicode which has the Won sign at U+20A9, much software will continue to display backslashes found in ASCII files this way to preserve backwards compatibility.

Mac OS X is UNIX-based and thus uses UNIX paths internally. However, to preserve compatibility for software and familiarity for users, many portions of the GUI switch "/" typed by the user to ":" internally, and switch them back when displaying filenames (a ":" entered by the user is also changed into "/" but the inverse translation does not happen).

[edit] Uniform Naming Convention

The UNC, short for Universal Naming Convention or Uniform Naming Convention, specifies a common syntax to describe the location of a network resource, such as a shared file, directory, or printer. The UNC syntax for Windows systems is as follows:


Note: The UNC syntax is sometimes written with forward slashes. In Windows the forward slashes and back slashes are equivalent, but many programs will accept only backward slashes, and some will only accept double backslashes (i.e. \\\\ComputerName\\SharedFolder), especially in quoted string constants, due to the standard use of backslash as an escape character.

The "SharedFolder" is not necessarily the same as what a program on the server would see if it tried to open "\SharedFolder". Instead it is an arbitrary name assigned to the folder when it was "shared".

Some Microsoft Windows interfaces also accept the "Long UNC":


The types of paths in Windows are local file system (LFS), such as C:\File, uniform naming convention (UNC), such as \\Server\Volume\File, and Long UNC or UNCW, such as \\?\C:\File or \\?\UNC\Server\Volume\File. In earlier versions of Windows only the APIs that accept "Long UNC" were able to accept more than 260 characters.

Unix-like systems occasionally use a similar syntax [1]. POSIX says that a path beginning with two slashes is treated in an implementation-defined manner [2], though in other cases multiple slashes must be treated as single slashes [3]. Many applications on Unix-like systems, for example, scp, rcp, rsync, use resource definitions such as


or, like URLs with the service name (here 'smb'):


[edit] Example

[edit] Unix style

Here is an example with a Unix style file system as it would appear from a terminal or terminal application (command-line window):

Your current working directory (cwd) is:


You want to change your current working directory to:


At that moment, the relative path for the directory you want is:


and the absolute path for the directory you want is


Because bobapples is the relative path for the directory you want, you may type the following at the command prompt to change your current working directory to bobapples:

cd bobapples

Two dots ("..") are used for moving up in the hierarchy, to indicate the parent directory; one dot (".") represents the directory itself. Both can be components of a complex relative path (e.g., "../mark/./bobapples"), where "." alone or as the first component of such a relative path represents the working directory. (Using "./foo" to refer to a file "foo" in the current working directory can sometimes be useful to distinguish it from a resource "foo" to be found in a default directory or by other means; for example, to view a specific version of a man page instead of the one installed in the system.)

[edit] MS-DOS/Microsoft Windows style

Contrary to popular belief, the Windows system API accepts slash, and thus all the above Unix examples should work. But many applications on Windows interpret a slash for other purposes or treat it as an invalid character, and thus require you to enter backslash. One of the prime examples is the cmd.exe shell (often called the "terminal" as it is typically run in a terminal window). Note that many other shells available for Windows, such as tcsh and Windows PowerShell, allow the forward slash.

In addition "\" does not indicate a single root, but instead the root of the "current disk". Indicating a file on a disk other than the current one requires prefixing a drive letter and colon. This is not ambiguous because colon is not a valid character in an MS-DOS filename, and thus one cannot have a file called "A:" in the current directory.

Here are some examples of MS-DOS/Windows style paths, with backslashes used to match the most common syntax:


This path points to a file whose name is File.txt, which is located in the directory Temp, which in turn is located in the root directory of the drive A:.


This path refers to a file called File.txt located in the parent directory of the current directory on drive C:.


This path denotes a file called File.txt located in SubFolder directory which in turn is located in Folder directory which is located in the current directory of the current drive (since no drive specification is present in this example).


This rather simple path points to a file named File.txt located in the current directory (since no directory specification is present) on the current drive (since no drive specification is present).


This path refers to the first serial port (COM1).

C:\>more < C:/Windows/system.ini
; for 16-bit app support

This example uses a path containing forward slashes as directory separator. The content of the file is redirected to more.

E:\>dir "/Folder/SubFolder/" /Q
Volume in drive E is Data
Volume Serial Number is 07BE-0B10

Directory of E:\Folder\SubFolder

10/18/2008 08:15 AM <DIR> DOMAIN\user .
10/18/2008 08:15 AM <DIR> DOMAIN\user ..
10/18/2008 08:15 AM <DIR> DOMAIN\user File.txt
1 File(s) 8 bytes
2 Dir(s) 19,063,000 bytes free

A path containing forward slashes often needs to be surrounded by double quotes to disambiguate it from command line switches.

  • note: CD does not work this way:

CD "[drive letter]:/Program Files" will only work from the root ([drive letter]:\) directory. This appears to be be treating all forward slashes the same as .\.

For example:

CD "C:.\Program Files"

works the same as

CD "C:/Program Files"

Also, from a root folder:

CD "C:.\Program Files.\Internet Explorer"

would be treated the same as

CD "C:/Program Files/Internet Explorer"

If there is no relative path to the directory name specified with forward slashes you will get the following error:

The system cannot find the path specified.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which is licensed under the GFDL.

[edit] External links

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