CIT050 Index

CIT 050: Paths in Linux and UNIX

Absolute Paths

street/house tree Imagine your file hierarchy as a map, where folders represents streets and files represent houses. An absolute pathname is like giving directions starting at the very outside of the map and working inwards. The directions for getting to Maria’s house in an absolute fashion would be “Start at Main street, then go to Oak street, then to Crestview Drive, and there is Maria’s house.” In terms of Linux pathnames, that would be /main/oak/crestview/maria.

In Linux, the / (slash) separates levels of directory. The topmost level of the file system has no name, so when you start from the topmost level, you start with a separator—the slash.

The absolute pathname to get to Frank’s house is “Start at Main Street, go to Cedar Street, and there is Frank’s house.” (/main/cedar/frank).

Relative Paths

Now let’s say you were on Crestview Drive in front of Maria’s house and someone asked you how to get to Vinh’s house. You wouldn’t answer, “Start at Main Street, then go to Oak Street, then go to Crestview Drive...” You wouldn’t do that because you’re already on the correct street. You would just say “it’s next door.” That is a relative pathname—starting from where you are right now, how do you get to the destination? In Linux terms, if you are in directory /main/oak/crestview, the relative filename for file vinh is just that: vinh, because it is in your current directory.

If you were on Cedar Street and someone asked you how to get to Tim’s house, you would tell them to go to Rainbow Drive, and there’s Tim’s house. In Linux, the relative path is rainbow/tim. Relative pathnames never begin with a slash.

If you were on Oak Street and someone asked you how to get to High Street, you would answer with a relative path: Go to Crestview Drive, and from there to High Street. As a relative path in Linux, that’s crestview/high.

Now comes a tricky one. You’re on Sunset Drive (in the diagram, that is the vertical dotted line beneath the folder labeled sunset), and someone asks you how to get to Frank’s house. You have to say: “Go back up one street (that puts you on Cedar street, the vertical dotted line under the cedar folder); that’s where you will find Frank’s house.” Whenever you tell someone to go back up one level in the file hierarchy, you use .. to symbolize the parent directory. In Linux terms, the relative pathname is ../frank

Common Mistakes

The relative pathname is not cedar/frank. If you are on Sunset Drive, you can’t go directly to Cedar Street; it’s not one of your sub-directories.

Using ../cedar/frank is also incorrect. That would mean “back up one level (which puts you on Cedar street) and then go to Cedar street (but you can’t; inside the cedar folder there is no other folder named cedar!)

If you are on Rainbow Drive and want to go to Cathy’s house, you have to back up to Cedar Street, and from there back up to Main Street. Once there, you have a straight shot to Oak Street and Cathy’s house. Thus, the relative path is ../../oak/cathy

There is one other abbreviation you can use in Linux paths; the dot . means  my current directory,” so if you were to use the command ls ., it would list the current directory. This seems like a useless concept, but it comes in handy in certain instances.

Experiment with Relative Paths

At the left is a file hierarchy, with home being right under the topmost level (so it is /home in absolute terms).

At the right, you can select a directory to change to by using the dropdown next to the cd command. Then select a directory or file to list by using the dropdown next to the ls command. When you click the “Describe Path” button, you will see how to form a relative path for the ls command.

tree list of files



Now, You Try It

In this section, you will be shown a starting directory and a destination. Enter the correct relative path for accessing the destination file or directory.

tree list of files

Presume you are in directory   and want to access  

Enter the correct relative path: