What are those files with a wiggly character at the beginning?

You may have noticed that you have some – or even many – files on your computer that start with the “~” character (the character between the quotes, that is). These are likely to be found in your “My Documents” folder amongst your other data files.

Tilde Character

Tilde Character

This strange character is known as a “tilde” (pronounced “tilduh”). It is the same sort of wiggle as used in some languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese, to indicate the pronounciation of certain letters. In computer terms, it is used in different ways to mean different things. When it appears as the first character in a filename then it is most probably denoting a temporary file created by Microsoft Office applications (eg Word and Excel).

Figure 1 shows a folder in which I have placed just one file – Fred.docx. This is a Word document (as denoted by the “.docx”). Word itself has created the other, temporary, file (~$Fred.docx). This temporary file will be deleted by Word as soon as I close the Fred.docx file.

File Listing including Tilde

Figure 1. A “real” file and a “temporary” one

The presence of the temporary file (beginning with the tilde) is used by the program (eg Word) to indicate that a file is open, so that if any other user who has access to the same file (eg on a local network) tries to open the file, they are restricted to a “read only” version while the original user of the file still has it open. This makes sense as allowing two or more people to change the same file at the same time would mean that the system does not know which is the “proper” one, and one user could have their changes discarded in favour of another user’s changes.

When the file is closed PROPERLY the system deletes the temporary file. If a temporary file persists after the file has been finished with, it indicates that the file was not closed properly (as closing it properly would have caused the temporary file(s) to be deleted).

Apart from looking messy, there are at least two reasons why you should close files properly (thereby causing the temporary version to be deleted):

  • If the temporary file still exists from its previous use, you won’t be able to open the file again and make changes to it, as the system thinks that two different people have got it open. You would still be able to open it in “read only” mode. You could employ the workaround of saving it with a different name, but why make life even more complicated?
  • Files that are not closed properly can become corrupted (and, therefore, unusable). Most computer programs and systems are very much better these days than they used to be at protecting your data from corruption in the event of sudden termination of the file. Nevertheless, I would advise ALWAYS closing data files properly whenever possible. There is nothing to be gained by improperly terminating a file (unless the system has stopped responding such that you have no option).

So, what do you do if you have lots of files beginning with a tilde?

CombOver

CombOver

Having made sure that you don’t have any data files open in Word, Excel or Powerpoint, you can open Windows Explorer (or File Explorer, as it is now known) and delete all files that begin with a tilde.

If you have lots of such files, I recommend asking yourself how they came to be there. If your computer regularly freezes or you switch it off without closing files properly first, then I strongly advise giving some serious thought to getting the hardware sorted out or changing your work practices.

Working with computers is stressful enough already. Why make it more difficult by dodgy hardware or dodgy working practices?

For a fuller exposition, see Description of How Word Creates Temporary Files

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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