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Using File Abbreviations to Enhance Windows and Visual File Searches

Annaliese DellSec-Treas
QODBC and tech tips
Can you find a fax from a vendor you saved a decade ago in seconds? Have you ever cursed your PC under your breath during an audit because you couldn’t find the requested statement or driver history?  If you answered no to the first question or yes to the second, file abbreviations could save you time and aggravation.

Many organizations do not have the expertise, funding or resources to implement an enterprise search engine.  Neatly organizing files in folders can help, however, users may move files to the incorrect location or need to combine them as a set for archiving or distribution.  In this case a file naming convention can ensure the correct files are found quickly.

The most important part of organization is implementing and using a system. Any system is better than none. A system of specific yet easily followed procedures gives consistent results.  If you don’t use file abbreviations as part of your file naming system, consider the benefits. If you do use them, consider enhancing them.

The concept of file abbreviations is not new. The FBI uses them as well as the Canadian CAIPS (Computer Assisted Immigration Processing System) as well as many workplaces, organizations and departments. Text messaging is rife with abbreviations.

Language is always changing. Have you read any Shakespeare lately? I expect our great-great-great grand children will speak in abbreviations and sound like the clickety-clack aliens from the movie District 9. Okay, maybe not quite that bad. But they’ll most assuredly consider our current speaking language tedious and slow.  That's not necessarily a bad thing. Like my youngest son always responds when I correct his grammar: The importance of language is the ability to get your point across.

While you don’t want your file names to appear as foreign as the symbols on an alien spaceship, a few minor improvements will get your point across while advancing you toward the ultimate goal of optimal organization.

Requirements for file abbreviations are that they:
Enhance Windows file search
Are easily understood by someone familiar with the system (like your accountant, bookkeeper, auditors, etc.)
Make documents easily distinguishable among thousands of files
Lend themselves to searches and sorts by category (letters, faxes, memos, etc.) regardless of format (pdf, doc, jpg, etc.)

Any of you experienced with the VB family of languages might be familiar with Hungarian naming convention. Briefly, they’re lower case prefixes for variables that distinguish type, ie.: str for string, dbl for double, int for integer, etc.  Extending this naming convention to file names satisfies the necessary requirements previously listed.

If you don’t date code files, you may want to read this article first. Using the ISO date code allows file sorts by content date rather than creation, accessed or modified dates.

Here’s an example of date coded files:
2010-01-31 John Johnson.doc
2010-02-03 A1 Insurance.pdf
2010-02-04 A1 Insurance.doc
2010-02-04 A1 Insurance.jpg
2010-02-04 A1 Insurance 2.jpg
2010-02-04 A1 Insurance.pdf
2010-02-05 John Johnson.pdf

While date coding is an excellent step toward organization, the above file names reveal little about the content context. References to document type reveal more detail:
2010-01-31 John Johnson.letter about late payment.doc
2010-02-03 A1 Insurance renewal quote.pdf
2010-02-04 A1 Insurance new rates.doc
2010-02-04 A1 Insurance letter about renewal.jpg
2010-02-04 A1 Insurance letter about ACH payments.jpg
2010-02-04 A1 Insurance letter about ACH payments 2.pdf
2010-02-05 John Johnson letter about late payment.pdf

The word letter is easily recognized in the above list but consumes five characters; both unnecessary and as cumbersome as described in the song by Seven Mary Three.  If these files are stored in deeply nested folders it becomes challenging to quickly scan the files.

Abbreviations, however, get the point across with less characters.  Here is a sample convention:
AR  Article
DH  Driver history
EM  Email
EN  Endorsement
FX  Fax
LT  Letter
MM  Memo
QT  Quote

This improves the file list considerably:
2010-01-31 LT John Johnson. about late  payment.doc
2010-02-03 QT A1 Insurance renewal.pdf
2010-02-04 FX A1 Insurance fax about new rates.doc
2010-02-04 LT A1 Insurance about ACH payments 2.pdf
2010-02-04 LT A1 Insurance about ACH payments.jpg
2010-02-04 LT A1 Insurance about renewal.jpg
2010-02-05 MM John Johnson about late payment.pdf

Sorting by document type rather than file type is now possible. The list above groups all letters to A1 Insurance in February even though two are jpeg and one is pdf.  File abbreviations facilitate document type sorts while still allowing file type sorts when desired.

The list still contains issues, however. What if there were hundreds of letters for A1 Insurance? Three letter prefixes allow more detailed sorting, where f = from and t = to.
ARf     Article from
ARt     Article to
EMf     Email from
EMt     Email to
ENf     Endorsement from
ENt     Endorsement to
FXf     Fax from
FXt     Fax to
LTf     Letter from
LTt     Letter to
MMf     Memo from
MMt     Memo to
QTf     Quote from
QTt     Quote to

Now the file names contain the same amount of information using less characters:
2010-01-31 LTf John Johnson. about late payment.doc
2010-02-03 QTf A1 Insurance renewal.pdf
2010-02-04 FXt Insurance fax about new rates.doc
2010-02-04 LTf A1 Insurance about ACH payments 2.pdf
2010-02-04 LTt A1 Insurance about ACH payments.jpg
2010-02-04 LTf A1 Insurance about renewal.jpg
2010-02-05 MMt John Johnson about late payment.pdf

Just as important as the abbreviation is placement. To facilitate programmatically naming and retrieving files, abbreviations should begin with the ISO date code with its length of ten characters, then one space and the abbreviation. This results in a constant start point of character twelve for all abbreviations--a programming benefit.

A visual sort distinguishes between letters from and letters to. A Windows file search for: 2010*LTt A1 Insurance results only in letters to A1 Insurance, excluding letters from A1 Insurance.

About about. That’s not a type-o but a reference to another opportunity for brevity. Using RE between the name and descriptive phrase saves characters while avoiding confusion.

Consider this file name:
2010-06-30 LTt Sam Lee Singasong Restaurant 4th Quarter Profit.pdf

Adding the word about makes a long name longer but leaving it out may cause confusion. Is the letter to Sam Lee about the the Singasong Restaurant or to Sam about the Lee Singasong Restaurant or to Sam Lee Sinagasong about a nameless restaurant?

Using RE as both abbreviation and separator solves this:
2010-06-30 LTt Sam Lee RE Singasong Restaurant 4th Quarter Profit.pdf

In summary, along with date coding, file abbreviations are:
   1. easy to implement and understand
   2. enhance Windows file search
   3. eliminate confusion
   4. enhance visual search
   5. allow sorting and searching by document type regardless of file type
   6. do not prevent sorting and searching by file type

Implementing file abbreviations will organize your PC, saving you time and aggravation.

Consider a format like:
[ISO Date Code] [abbreviation] [name] [RE] [descriptive phrase]

YYYY-MM-DD ABr Name RE descriptive_phrase

Think about when and how you retrieve electronic files and decide on abbreviations that make sense for you. Above all, once implemented, be consistent.

© 2011, Lisa Readington. All rights reserved.
Annaliese DellSec-Treas
QODBC and tech tips

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