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Files and folders on computers: one of life’s great mysteries

During the course of many interactions with family and friends, I have come across great confusion about what constitutes a file and what constitutes a folder on a home computer’s hard drive or other storage mechanism such as a CD-ROM or memory stick. When I send someone a file attached to an e-mail and then enquire about the attachment later, I sometimes get a response along the lines of ‘I don’t know what happened to it’ or ‘How do I save this file in a folder?’ or ‘I thought I saved the file in a folder but now I can’t find it!’. And, dare I say it, most of my confused acquaintances are female and ‘of a certain age’. These are females who in their earlier lives may well have been secretaries or similar and were well used to filing paperwork in a metal multi-drawer filing cabinet. In those days, ask them for a particular file and they would go straight to the right filing cabinet, open the right drawer, extract the right folder, and proffer the right file. Bazinga! Similarly, if asked to file a new file or folder in an existing filing system. Another bazinga!

But, on a computer, chaos, confusion and perplexity reign supreme!

I’ve never figured out the reason for this. When I sense the perplexity coming to the surface, I test the understanding with four basic questions related to files and folders on a computer:

– Can you put a file in a file?
– Can you put a file in a folder?
– Can you put a folder in a file?
– Can you put a folder in a folder?

If you know the correct answers to these four questions then you need read no further. If you don’t, you’re hosed! (Scroll to the end of this blog for the correct answers.)


Part of the problem, I suspect, is caused by Microsoft’s preordained and already named standard folders such as Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, and so on. We can think of these as individual drawers in a metal filing cabinet but the fact that they exist makes us lazy. We don’t know or we forget that we can create sub-folders in these top-level folders and thus these sub-folders called, for example, Letters, Addresses, Holidays, Bank and so on in the Documents folder are not created. Everything that Microsoft automatically files, or you file, in a top-level folder just stays there in one big jumble.

An associated problem that I’ve seen is that people don’t understand the meaning of a file name extension (the bit after the dot) – .doc and .docx, .jpg, .mp4, .pdf, .ppt and .pptx, .mobi, .epub, and so on. These extensions are a mystery to many and, I guess, if you are not involved in creating original .xxx files, why would you cultivate an understanding of their meaning?

My advice, for what it’s worth, is that if you are mystified by the answers to my four questions above and by the significance of a file name’s extension, find someone who knows about these things and seek their friendly but learned tuition. It will make your computer life so much easier!


And for the record, I do not use Microsoft’s standard top-level folders. I have created my own Ben’s Stuff folder/sub-folder filing system and it suits me fine. This doesn’t mean I can always find the file I’m looking for straight away but, hey, there’s always the Search facility! That works.

One final point. I would make it a rule to place a shortcut to Microsoft’s File Explorer (formerly Windows Explorer) on the desktop. File Explorer allows you to see the folder/sub-folder structure and file contents of every folder on your hard drive, or elsewhere. It is the most essential tool for figuring out where to save something and from where to retrieve it. File Explorer is the equivalent of the pretty young secretary who used to do your filing. File Explorer is your filing friend. Use it.

Answers to the four questions, in order: no, yes, no, yes.