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So I'm curious where the idea that URLs contain backslashes came from. It's a fairly regular occurrence at work that I'll tell someone to go to a certain URL and they'll ask "forward or back slash?" Some quick internet searching suggests that URLs can only contain forward slashes to differentiate them from file paths, which only use backslashes. However, I'm pretty sure most of the people who ask this question have never typed a file path into a command prompt. Does anyone know what computer systems might have caused the average user to believe they should use a backslash regularly?

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"Does anyone know what computer systems might have caused the average user to believe they should use a backslash regularly?"

Yes, IBM-DOS, MS-DOS and Windows.

In reality I think it has nothing to do with OSs they may have used in the past; The average end-user doesn't know the difference and can never tell which one to use in which context, so they tend to always ask.

Also, regardless of the answer you give them, this is usually followed by "OK, which one/where is that on the keyboard?"

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  • Soooooo true! It find it interesting that when I ask most people who are having computer issues what OS they have installed I get the 'deer in headlights' look 99.9% of the time. It does not seem like that technical of a question to me.. I could see (possibly) not knowing the speed of your CPU or amount of RAM, but not what operating system is installed.
    – Richie086
    May 5, 2014 at 23:40
  • +1 especially for "... which one/where is that...". Oct 1, 2014 at 4:31
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The short and obvious answer to the question is that Windows is using backslashes to separate file paths. I can see a couple of reasons for the confusion.

Firstly it may be that the prompt C:\ is much more iconic than http:// and so on, and therefore is what comes to mind first. It is also probably the case that most users have had to actively know where a file is located, but not the exact path of a URL. Thus, the backslash is, again, what first comes to mind.

Secondly, the word slash is ambiguous, in that (without context) it might refer to either a forward slash or a backslash.

Lastly I want to add that the claim "URLs can only contain forward slashes to differentiate them from file paths, which only use backslashes" is incorrect. Most non-Windows operating systems are using forward slashes as directory separators. But, Windows can do so as well. Even though the canonical path to a file is typically using backslashes, you can also for the most part use forward slashes instead of backslashes in path names. Try it out next time you get a chance.

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  • I believe that "slash", even without the "forward" word, refers to "/" Apr 4, 2017 at 3:05
  • Most non-Windows operating systems are using forward slashes as directory separators. This is actually where the convention of web addresses using / comes from. In the *nix systems, "everything is a file" from files to devices to memory, and Internet locations are no different.
    – Synetech
    Sep 14, 2019 at 14:42
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The other short and obvious answer is that many radio and TV “journalists”, and some advertisements, use the term “backslash” when articulating URLs.  I attribute this to the fact that radio and TV “journalists” are not rocket scientists, or even computer scientists, and an “Emperor’s new clothes” phenomenon takes hold – nobody wants to point out the fact that so many people have got it wrong.

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