Path (computing): Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A path, the general form of a filename or of a directory name, specifies 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).

Systems can use either absolute or relative paths. 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.


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 \ (note: does not treat / as a directory separator) .. 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

UserDocs:/Letter.txt Variable:PSVersionTable Registry::HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\ Microsoft.PowerShell.Security\Certificate::CurrentUser\

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

Japanese and Korean versions of Windows may often display the '¥' character or the '' character instead of the path separator. In such cases the code for a 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 did not intend the 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.[1]

Mac OS X, as a derivative of UNIX, 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).

Uniform Naming Convention

The Microsoft Windows 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 has the generic form:


Note: The UNC syntax sometimes appears written with forward slashes. Microsoft Windows treats forward slashes and back slashes as 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" does not necessarily have the same name when viewed remotely as what a program on the server would see if it tried to open "\SharedFolder". Instead, the SharedFolder name consists of an arbitrary name assigned to the folder when defining its "sharing".

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


Microsoft Windows uses the following types of paths:

  • local file system (LFS), such as C:\File,
  • uniform naming convention (UNC), such as \\Server\Volume\File,
  • 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" could accept more than 260 characters.

The shell in Windows XP and Windows Vista (a.k.a. Explorer.exe) allow path names up to 248 characters long.

Posix pathname definition

Unix-like systems occasionally use a similar syntax.[2] POSIX allows treating a path beginning with two slashes in an implementation-defined manner,[3] though in other cases systems must treat multiple slashes as single slashes.[4] Many applications on Unix-like systems (for example, scp, rcp and rsync) use resource definitions such as:


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




Unix style

The following worked example discusses the behavior of a Unix-style file system as it would appear from a terminal or terminal application (command-line window):

Attached to a current working directory (cwd) of:


You want to change your current working directory to:


At that moment, we can represent the relative path for the directory you want as:


or for short:


and the absolute path for the directory as:


Given bobapples as 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 ("..") point upwards in the hierarchy, to indicate the parent directory; one dot (".") represents the current 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 usefully 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.)

MS-DOS/Microsoft Windows style

Screenshot of a Windows command shell showing filenames in a directory

Contrary to popular belief, the Windows system API accepts forward 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 — notably the cmd.exe shell (often called the "terminal" as it typically runs 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. No ambiguity ensues, 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.

The following examples show MS-DOS/Windows-style paths, with backslashes used to match the most common syntax:


This path points to a file with the name File.txt, 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 this example gives no drive-specification).


This rather simple path points to a file named File.txt located in the current directory (since the path lacks a directory-specification) 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 command redirects the content of the file to the more command.

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 treat 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.

For setting environment variables, it is sometimes necessary to provide a path that does not contain spaces in it, for instance %JAVA_HOME% defined as "C:\Program Files\Java..." can cause scripts to halt when they encounter the space in the path name. To get the eight-character name Windows assigns to any directory for substitution in environment variables, use the directory listing command with the /x option one level up from the target directory. For instance, the following will get you the eight character name for all directories directly under root:

C:\> dir /x

See also


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

External links


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address