Setting Up A Filing System Part 4: Naming Computer Files

By | Feb 22, 2010

Naming computer files in most ways is the same as naming any other file, except for a few conventions you need to think about.

Using Special Characters

Generally, when naming computer files in Windows, you cannot use the following characters:

  • < (less than)
  • > (greater than)
  • : (colon)
  • ” (double quote)
  • / (forward slash)
  • \ (backslash)
  • | (vertical bar or pipe)
  • ? (question mark)
  • * (asterisk)
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However, there are other characters which are allowed under Windows that you should avoid.

  • Period or dot (.) should only be used before the file name extension (i.e. .doc, .ppt, .mdb, .txt, etc.).  While you can throw a dot in anywhere, it can be confusing to others looking at the file name.  Convention holds that it is used only to separate the file name from the file type extension.
  • Spaces can be used between words, but I recommend against it.  The reason being that if you need to post a document on-line or upload it to a SharePoint library, those spaces are going to be replaced with the html code for a space, making the link hard to remember.  Either use no spaces or replace spaces with underscores (_).
  • Other special characters should be avoided for the same reason that you may want to upload that document to a website at some point, and internet addresses cannot contain most special characters.  So, unless you want to have to rename every file containing #, @, %, & or other special characters in the name before you upload it to your SharePoint document library, just don’t use them to start with.  I had to rename over 200 documents one day because they all contained a # sign in the name.

Your best bet is to just not use anything but alphanumeric characters plus the dash and underscore keys when naming files.

Name Length

Windows allows file names to have up to 255 characters, which sounds like a huge amount, until you realize that the name of each file includes the name of every directory it is buried in.  So, if you have a file buried under 5 directories, each with a long name, you can easily exceed the 255 character limit.  If you move a file with a really long name into a directory many levels deep, all with long names, you’ll suddenly get an error when you try to open the file, because the file name is now more than 255 characters in length.  When I did help desk work for a local refinery, I got at least one call from this problem a week, because everyone used very descriptive directory and file names, and would build these extremely deep file structures.  The lesson here is to think about the length of all file and directory names when you are creating your filing system and naming files.

Dates in File Names

Putting dates in file names requires some special rules if you want your files listed in date order within your directory.  Here’s some basic rules to follow:

  • Always use a 4 digit year and put the year first in the date.  Otherwise, your files will be listed by month (or day if you use European dating conventions) with all years mixed together.
  • Don’t spell out month names (January, February, etc.) since this will put April ahead of March and December ahead of October and November.
  • Always use 2 digit month and day.  If you don’t, you’ll see November (10) and December (12) listed before February or March (2 and 3).  The reason for this is that Windows filing system does not recognize dates.  It lists files strictly in alphanumeric order. So any file starting with 1 will proceed any file starting with 2.  The way around this is to list 2 as 02 and 3 as 03.
  • All dates should be in the form of yyyy-mm-dd i.e. 2010-02-20).  I know Europeans like the day then month format, but your electronic files won’t file properly if you put the day first.

While your only consideration in naming paper files is clarifying what the file contains, when you name electronic files, you have many other conventions to consider.

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7 Comments so far
  1. Marc Accetta (1 comments) March 2, 2010 10:15 pm

    When we name our files, we make sure that we have the date on it as well as it is segregated by folders for each department.

  2. Jodith (189 comments) March 13, 2010 12:18 pm

    That’s usually a good way to go. When you have a date in the title, you always know you’re getting the most up to date version of file.

  3. Layne (1 comments) March 13, 2010 7:15 pm

    Really great suggestions. I work with management and staff who have a habit of naming files and then difficulty locating them. I love your suggestions with the dates, works great with monthly reports. I would like to suggest in your series on “How To” set up a filing system electronically if you would include a write up on naming files. Some suggestions that make it easy to locate, uses consistency so when you sort you would see all the memo, letters, etc. separately. That kind of thing. I know you get the gist of what I’m saying. I think it would be a great addition to your series.

    Thank you for the great suggestions. I love coming here and learning new tips and techniques that make my job that much easier.

    -Layne
    .-= Layne´s last blog ..Templates: Creating Style and Ease =-.

  4. Jodith (189 comments) March 21, 2010 12:30 pm

    That’s a really good suggestion, Layne. Thanks for leaving it. I’ll work on a naming conventions post for this coming week.

  5. Jess (1 comments) March 24, 2010 10:51 pm

    Thanks for covering in detail the dates in naming files. I very well apply it.
    .-= Jess´s last blog ..Alpha Brainwave Entrainment Video =-.

  6. panasonic toughbook 18 (1 comments) January 18, 2011 11:13 pm

    Great tips on how to properly use dates in file names. I like doing this because it gives me an idea on how new or how obsolete my files are. Admittedly, my files are all jumble up because I failed to put in the year first. I have figured out a way to go through my files that way, but it would be a lot easier with the things you have suggested. Thanks!

  7. Bruce (1 comments) March 3, 2011 8:20 pm

    Pretty informative article. I’m always amazed at the things the users in my work do when naming their files and folders. I think i’ll send this one out to our staff to get them a bit more educated on how to go about naming files.
    Bruce´s last blog post ..Quick Tip- Changing the Host Name in Ubuntu

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