Take care when naming files to avoid computer problems

File names are one of those things that we never really pay much attention to. They are one of the most basic aspects to computing. Sometimes they are hidden, sometimes they are not, sometimes they have extensions that perplex us, and sometimes their extensions are obvious. One thing remains consistent and that is they are always there.

Sunday, 7th June 2015, 11:47 am
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin

Recently I was speaking to a client of mine about file names and the problems that can arise when you choose the wrong name. For instance, we were trying to figure out why Outlook was having problems synchronising email folders. There wasn’t anything obviously wrong, until I went through each of the folders and found some that had question marks at the end. Question marks are special characters in computing and should be avoided when naming folders or choosing file names. As soon as we removed the offending characters from the folder names, everything worked again.

In case you are wondering, folders in any computer system are basically a special type of file. So the rules that govern files also govern folders. In the case of Outlook, the folders are all contained within one big file, which muddies the waters a bit. However, the basic principles still apply.

To avoid any problems, here are some basic rules you can follow.

Stick to basic alpha numeric characters when naming things. 0-9, a-z and A-Z

Try to keep things short.

Keeping things short is important. Computers are designed with limits built in by those who design them, so that performance does not suffer. When talking about file names, there is a limit on the length of the name. This limit applies to the entire file path, not just the file itself. So you might have a file called a.doc, which is pretty short on its own, but add that to a folder that is part of a convoluted set of subfolders and you will hit problems.

Here’s the kicker. Some programs may let you save a file without any problems, because they do not check the entire file path when doing so. It’s only when you try moving the file using Windows Explorer that you see any errors. This could cause you problems if you are manually backing up files onto a USB drive, for instance.

Rules about naming things don’t just apply to files you may have on your own computer. They also apply to web sites too. In fact, when it comes to the internet there are additional things to consider. The majority of web servers in use are case sensitive. For example, a page called HelpDocs.html would be completely different to a page called helpdocs.html The general advice when it comes to the internet is to keep everything lowercase. It makes things easier to remember and therefore easier to share with others.

Web servers do not like spaces in names either. If you do (accidentally) use a space in a web page address, it will be replaced with %20, which makes it hard to read as much as anything. It is better to replace spaces with a hyphen instead, which is a generally accepted practice.