Are both names synonyms or should one prefer one name over the other on different platforms?


6 Answers 6


As seen in this question, they are not the same.

Authoritative answer given by Raymond Chen:

Windows 95 introduced Windows Explorer and along with it the term folder. What is the relationship between folders and directories?

Some people believe that Windows 95 renamed directories to folders, but it's actually more than that.

Windows Explorer lets you view folders, which are containers in the shell namespace. Directories are one type of folder, namely, folders which correspond to file system locations. There are other types of folders, such as Control Panel or Network Neighborhood or Printers. These other types of folders represent objects in the shell namespace which do not correspond to files. In common usage, the term virtual folder has been applied to refer to folders which are not directories. In other words, we have this Euler diagram:

enter image description here (Virtual folders = Folders − Directories)

In general, code which manipulates the shell namespace should operate on folders and items, not directories and files, so as not to tie themselves to a particular storage medium. For example, code which limits itself to files won't be able to navigate into a Zip file, since the contents of a Zip file are exposed in the form of a virtual folder.

  • 1
    Also see: stackoverflow.com/a/1195096/412486
    – XP1
    Jan 10, 2012 at 17:54
  • 2
    Are you able to incorporate Virtual Folders into that diagram? maybe like i.imgur.com/PCbhJfu.png
    – barlop
    May 15, 2015 at 16:39
  • 1
    Microsoft was always wrong with this design because it denies clean, easy access to virtual folders and other resources via Command Prompt - something we still can't do today. Can you navigate a ZIP file from Command Prompt or Powershell like a normal directory? No? But Explorer can. Of course, doing so would require rethinking obsolete things like drive letters too, which itself has held back Windows development for at least a couple of decades. The correct approach for OS design was and still is: Command-line first, GUI second. Apr 16, 2020 at 15:26

As a reference to physical locations on the hard drive they are synonyms.

Windows tends to use "Folder".

*nix tends to use "Directory".

On Windows you have virtual folders (as mentioned in malfruct's answer) which are represented as directories but can be actually stored as files (zip files for example).

However, to the end user this distinction doesn't usually matter.

  • 1
    Virtual folders can reach beyond the files concept. For example Control Panel or libraries (Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos) or Devices and Printers – they are not "actually stored as files", although their content is sometimes (not always) constructed using files and referring to them.
    – miroxlav
    Jul 1, 2015 at 13:18

@mafu quotes Raymond Chen as writing:

Windows 95 introduced Windows Explorer and along with it the term folder.

Raymond Chan is rewriting history.

In fact, Microsoft Windows 95 borrowed many UI design ideas from Apple. And Apple in turn borrowed them from Xerox. Both the name "folder" and the visual metaphor of folders were part of the Xerox Star office environment in 19821.

See also:

1 - In 1985, I used a DLion workstation running Xerox software to write my PhD thesis ... if you want a source for that fact.

  • 10
    In his first sentence, Chen appears to state that Microsoft introduced the term "folder". This is false. That is my point.
    – Stephen C
    Feb 18, 2017 at 2:35
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    Well, Chen's stating the fact that that term was introduced to be used in Windows, which is undeniable. He's not (clearly) saying that that was the first time the term was ever used. It also does not really matter who invented it, as long as the difference between both terms are similar, and that they are, according to what you linked to. (And even if it were different on Xerox - that would merely be a historical note with no relevance in 2017.)
    – mafu
    Feb 18, 2017 at 2:48
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    If he is stating that, then his language is clumsy. Because that is NOT how it reads / parses. Either way, (if he is deliberately rewriting history, if he is unaware of the precedents, or if his writing is clumsy) it detracts from his "authority". You say "clearly". I disagree.
    – Stephen C
    Feb 18, 2017 at 3:21
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    Or maybe the fault is with you for calling this an authoritative source. It is arguably authoritative for Windows, but it is not authoritative in the context of the question .... which is about different platforms.
    – Stephen C
    Feb 18, 2017 at 3:25
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    The position of 'clearly' in my sentence was intentional; I did not say "he's clearly not saying x" but "he's not clearly saying x". Apart from that, this is way too much which hunting for me, I don't think he or I ever intended to rewrite history. His answer is what one would call authoritative on the platform used by the overwhelming majority of people for 2 decades (and thus likely what the asker wanted to know, as this is not tagged history), and it identically applies to other platforms, too. You're getting all heated up over an unimportant language ambiguity.
    – mafu
    Feb 18, 2017 at 11:36

Actually, in this MSDN page, you can read :

In Windows, the terms "directory" and "folder" are used interchangeably. Most documentation and user interface text uses the term "folder," but the .NET Framework class library uses the term "directory."

So I think that both are fine. I tend to use "folder" as it's shorter and I'm lazy.

  • Thanks. This MSDN reference is the most useful thing I've found on this question.
    – Neil T
    Feb 23, 2022 at 20:01

For GUI platforms, "Folder" name is recommended where as for command line environment, "Directory" name is suited.

  • 11
    Is recommended, by whom?
    – KajMagnus
    Jul 21, 2013 at 8:16
  • 2
    Citation needed Nov 28, 2015 at 22:59

What humanfly said, with the additional note that some programs use "Folder" but NEVER directory, i.e. in email programs like Outlook. You never have "subdirectories" but you often have "subfolders".

  • Does Outlook really work with file system directories? Or does it offer just virtual e-mail folders?
    – Mike L.
    Jul 30, 2010 at 6:58
  • No, it's only folders. I was making a point that the terminology is NOT always interchangeable. You didn't specify for just system tree structure in your question.
    – JNK
    Jul 30, 2010 at 10:10
  • 5
    The term subdirectory does exist, and means much the same as subfolder in this context.
    – Phoshi
    Jul 31, 2010 at 14:34

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