I was wondering if there's an alternative for the word descend (maybe something better than simply go), in the context of computer file systems, that doesn't imply going down.

When we talk about file systems, which usually have a hierarchical tree structure, it's common to say "descend into subdirectories/subfolders" when going from a parent into child directories. However, we also use the term root to refer to the node with no parent, so in the analogy of a tree branching out, I don't really like using the word "descend" for going from parent to child nodes (on the other hand, it actually works very well for the parent-child analogy).

In general, the tree data structure (not an actual tree) doesn't have a "physical" direction, and in practice, people visualise them in different ways (top-down, bottom-up or even left-to-right), so I would rather use a word that doesn't imply any physical sense of direction.

Example: "The diff command will not descend into subdirectories by default, so the --recursive option is needed."

UPDATE: There were several good suggestions, but I'm accepting the answer from @jeff-zeitlin because I think it sufficiently rationalises the use of "descend" with the ancestor analogy, which removes my original objection. Beyond that, I think the commonly-used term should be the obvious choice.

  • 1
    A lot depends on exactly what you want to say. Example sentences where you want to use this word might help.
    – Ben
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 13:52
  • If this is for a user-facing service, you might want to ask this over at ux.stackexchange.com
    – mowwwalker
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 17:54
  • You forgot the closing quotation mark in your example.
    – Ruslan
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 6:09
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MetaEd
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 13:37
  • What is wrong with the physical direction metaphor. It is hardly a metaphor at all, or rather is no more a metaphor than 'enter', 'go into', 'open', 'sub-directory', 'branch', 'navigate', 'child'. These are all non-literal, physical metaphors. I have no problem trying to restrict arbitrarily, but it'll help knowing the motivation beyond 'physical direction' given that these other metaphors have their own 'physicality'.
    – Mitch
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 14:13

8 Answers 8


Descend is perfectly fine, and doesn’t imply an up-down direction - rather, as a child is a descendant of his parents, so too is a child node viewed as a descendant of the parent node, with the root node being the parent of the entire file system. Just as you descend your family tree from your apical ancestors, you descend the file system tree from the apical root node. This is signalling a hierarchical relationship, not a directional one.

  • 2
    Absolutely. The 'tree' representation of a Unix or Windows file system is closely related, if not actually derived from, the ancient family tree used in genealogy and is also related to the tree representation of organisational heirarchies. When referring to family trees and organisational diagrams no one questions the fact that the tree is 'upside down' and file structure trees are accepted in the same way. The only slight anomaly is the use of the term 'root' for the highest level but this is now so old that it is understood everywhere.
    – BoldBen
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 13:28

Traverse is a good, general word, so probably not quite what you are after. This article on tree traversal avoids the use of descend completely - not sure if that is deliberate or not.

How about "enter" or even just "go in to"?

  • "Traverse" did pop in my head earlier, but (as the article you linked to says) it means to go over a tree by visiting every node, not go from a parent into a child node. "Enter" is a good candidate.
    – Ratler
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:11
  • Oops - your answer was posted first (that's what I get for being distracted :) ). I'm upvoting your answer and deleting mine.
    – Lawrence
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:16
  • traverse means to travel across. It is as "directional" as any other.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 16:07
  • You can use "traverse" with the sense of "descending" by using "into", as in: "traverse into the subfolder"
    – LeoRochael
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 17:33
  • An example of this being used is the "Bypass traverse checking" privilege and the "Traverse" permissions in Windows operating systems. Commented May 26, 2018 at 1:12

Can't help but shout it: DRILL DOWN

And look, there is even a drill down tree!

Drill-down is an action that will provide more details about data. Drilling down through a dimension hierarchy will expand next level of the dimension. It can be compared to browsing through your directory structure.

drill down tree

Drill down, as opposed to top level

  • 1
    I actually like this (would upvote if I could), although it still has "down" in it...
    – Ratler
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:03
  • If you have a tree, you have top levels [the top of the tree] and it's all down from there. Logically. However, it is not a physical direction, it is dependent one.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 12:56

Progress or proceed both work in this sense, with proceed being a little more action-oriented:

Progress through the file tree.


Proceed into the subdirectory and execute the file named...

Those are both somewhat formal, though I do like proceed.

If I were using everyday language to tell someone what to do in, for instance, a remote session (which I do for my job occasionally), I'd simply say:

"Go into the subdirectory and..."

Then perhaps later I would say:

"Okay, now go back out to the main folder and...".

But you've indicated you want something better than go, so proceed would be a good option.


Perhaps consider using 'branch'. Like roots, they don't necessarily always go "down". EBT

Considering it further is the term 'tracing', or perhaps 'track[ing]' something not already utilized in your discipline's terminology? EBT

  • 3
    That's true, but unfortunately, "branching" already has a very specific meaning in computing, so I think it would just cause confusion.
    – Ratler
    Commented May 25, 2018 at 11:52

In conversations, the word "cd" is used most often, as in the "cd" command. I would not abuse it in a text, but there would be nothing wrong with using it as a secondary option. For the main words to describe your intended use, "descend", "change into", "enter" are quite appropriate.


Another choice would be to use the word navigate. It implies the sense of motion that descend does but at the same time removes the sense of direction. A file system tree structure does provide defined linkage paths and navigate is a great term to describe following those paths.


iterate (through the list of items found in the filesystem tree, perhaps only until you find what you want)

  • This to me suggests repetition, which isn't necessarily the case.
    – Someone
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 12:36

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