I am trying to find the list of any file in any directory of a given name (by in the directory, I mean directly in the directory, so in a directory which is in the directory would not count). For the sake of example. Let's suppose I want to find all files in each folder called "Preferences", and let's restrict our search to the folder ~/.Mathematica. If I wanted to do this from the terminal, I could just do

find ~/.Mathematica -regex ~/.Mathematica.*Preferences/[^/]*.

This works and I see there is a single file matching my criteon, ~/.Mathematica/ApplicationData/Parallel/Preferences/Preferences.m

But I want to try to do it conveniently in mathematica. I am thinking the Filenames function should do it.

I will first run


Then I would run

fileAndDirectoryNames = 
 FileNames["*",RegularExpression[".*Preferences"], 1]

followed by

fileNames = Select[fileAndDirectoryNames, ! DirectoryQ[#] &]

However, this gives incorrect results for me: fileAndDirectoryNames is an empty list. If I instead run

fileAndDirectoryNames = 
 FileNames["*", RegularExpression[".*/.*/Preferences"], 1]

and recompute fileNames as before, then I get correct output.

I am confused because it seems to me that the regular expression in my second attempt is stronger (allows for fewer matches) than the one in my first attempt. The fileNames function should have a monotonicity property in the second argument that if you weaken the pattern, then the new output ought to be a superset of the original output. Yet this doesn't seem to happen. Why is this? I am not sure if I am having a problem with mathematica or my understanding of regular expressions.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes indeed my answer was flawed. I'll delete it and see if I can come up with something better. $\endgroup$
    – mfvonh
    Aug 22, 2014 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the effort. It seems this problem is at least non-trivial and your answer helped me understand somewhat. $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2014 at 21:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Does this do it? Select[Not@*DirectoryQ]@FileNames[RegularExpression[".*Preferences/[^/]+"],"tmp",Infinity]. $\endgroup$
    – mfvonh
    Aug 23, 2014 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ Yes that seems to work. You should turn this into an answer. The question still remains why the solution in my question doesn't work. Reviewing the documentation, I guess it is the case that the second argument isn't supposed to be pattern, but an actual list of directories. Nevertheless, it seems like having the second argument being a regular expression is somewhat supported but not in a way that makes total sense. That is just my guess. Thanks. $\endgroup$ Aug 24, 2014 at 2:49
  • $\begingroup$ Glad it worked. I revised/undeleted. $\endgroup$
    – mfvonh
    Aug 24, 2014 at 3:52

2 Answers 2


All three of parameters for FileNames can affect the depth at which Mathematica searches for results. It seems like your confusion is a result of interaction among these parameters. This is easily understandable as the documentation for FileNames is not very illustrative. (Indeed my first attempt at answering this question was faulty for the same reason.)

The first parameter -- the form -- should be thought of as a relative path. It has no intrinsic depth specification, but will be tested at depths specified by the next two parameters. However, it is possible to control the depth of the search with this parameter by specifying a folder hierarchy in the form you are searching for. (See below.) This can be a literal string, a string with simple wildcards (*, etc.), a Mathematica-style string pattern, or a regular expression.

The second parameter -- the directories -- specifies the top-level locations in which Mathematica will conduct its search. The first parameter will be tested relative to what is specified here. This can also be a literal or a pattern, same as above.

The third parameter -- the depth -- tells Mathematica whether it should repeat the search for the first parameter in subdirectories of the paths specified in the second parameter. When its value is 1 (the default), Mathematica will only return matches that are immediately relative to a directory specified in the second argument.

Rather than writing a bunch of prose, I think it will be easier to just supply some examples to see how these things can interact.

First, here is the entire directory tree of the folder tmp:

FileNames["*", "tmp", Infinity]

{"tmp/1B.2010-2011.dataless", "tmp/Preferences", "tmp/Preferences/test6", "tmp/t1", "tmp/t1/Preferences", "tmp/t1/Preferences/dir1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences/test7", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test2", "tmp/t1/st1", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences/test9", "tmp/t2", "tmp/t3", "tmp/t3/Preferences", "tmp/t3/Preferences/test3", "tmp/t3/Preferences/test4", "tmp/test5"}

So of course we see that Infinity directs Mathematica to walk the whole tree. By contrast, the default value (1) yields:

FileNames["*", "tmp"]

{"tmp/1B.2010-2011.dataless", "tmp/Preferences", "tmp/t1", "tmp/t2", "tmp/t3", "tmp/test5"}


    FileNames["*", "tmp", 2]

{"tmp/1B.2010-2011.dataless", "tmp/Preferences", "tmp/Preferences/test6", "tmp/t1", "tmp/t1/Preferences", "tmp/t1/st1", "tmp/t2", "tmp/t3", "tmp/t3/Preferences", "tmp/test5"}

This is all straightforward. Now, consider these examples. Take note of how we are controlling the depth of the search in various ways.

FileNames["t1/*", "tmp"]

{"tmp/t1/Preferences", "tmp/t1/st1"}

FileNames["*", "tmp/t1"]

{"tmp/t1/Preferences", "tmp/t1/st1"}

FileNames["t1/*", "tmp", 2]

{"tmp/t1/Preferences", "tmp/t1/Preferences/dir1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test2", "tmp/t1/st1", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences"}

FileNames["t1/*", "tmp", Infinity]

{"tmp/t1/Preferences", "tmp/t1/Preferences/dir1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences/test7", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test2", "tmp/t1/st1", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences/test9"}

FileNames["test*", "tmp/t1", Infinity]

{"tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences/test7", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test2", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences/test9"}

FileNames["*", "tmp/*/Preferences"]

{"tmp/t1/Preferences/dir1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test2", "tmp/t3/Preferences/test3", "tmp/t3/Preferences/test4"}

Note that * in the second parameter is not matching nested directories. (E.g., we are not getting "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences/test7".) The same happens if we try RegularExpression["tmp/.*/Preferences"]. The reason is given in the documentation:

Mathematica syntax is sometimes inconsistent in unpredictable ways to remind users of the imperfection of the human condition.

FileNames["*", "tmp/*/*/Preferences", Infinity]

{"tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences/test7", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences/test9"}

The best way to conduct the search in question, then, is to describe the folder hierarchy in the first argument.

paths = FileNames[RegularExpression["Preferences/[^/]+"],"tmp‌​",Infinity]

{"tmp/Preferences/test6", "tmp/t1/Preferences/dir1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences/test7", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test2", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences/test9", "tmp/t3/Preferences/test3", "tmp/t3/Preferences/test4"}

Notice how RegularExpression is doing what we would expect when it is passed to the form parameter.

And then we can filter as needed.


{"tmp/Preferences/test6", "tmp/t1/Preferences/Preferences/test7", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test1", "tmp/t1/Preferences/test2", "tmp/t1/st1/Preferences/test9", "tmp/t3/Preferences/test3", "tmp/t3/Preferences/test4"}

  • $\begingroup$ I got around to using your answer instead of the hack I came up with. It seems that in paths = FileNames[RegularExpression[".*Preferences/[^/]+"],"tmp‌​",Infinity], you don't need the .* in the regular expression; paths = FileNames[RegularExpression["Preferences/[^/]+"],"tmp‌​",Infinity] works just as well. $\endgroup$ Aug 25, 2014 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ Good catch -- Infinity is taking care of that. $\endgroup$
    – mfvonh
    Aug 25, 2014 at 19:09

In Mathematica 10 you could use Composition and the new operator form of Select:

Mathematica 10.0 for Linux x86 (64-bit)
Copyright 1988-2014 Wolfram Research, Inc.

In[1]:=  Select[Not@*DirectoryQ]@FileNames["*Preferences*",{".Mathematica"},Infinity]

Out[1]= {.Mathematica/ApplicationData/Parallel/Preferences/Preferences.m}

In Mathematica 9 this will do, but is less fun:

Mathematica 9.0 for Linux x86 (64-bit)
Copyright 1988-2013 Wolfram Research, Inc.

In[1]:= Select[FileNames["*Preferences*",{".Mathematica"},Infinity],!DirectoryQ[#]&]

Out[1]= {.Mathematica/ApplicationData/Parallel/Preferences/Preferences.m}
  • $\begingroup$ I haven't tried this yet in mathematica 10. I am using mathematica 9, and the solution you posted for mathematica 9 does not work for my version. My Mathematica system information is Version 9.0 for linux x86 (64-bit) (February 7, 2013), Release ID (4092720, 4092445) $\endgroup$ Aug 23, 2014 at 11:32
  • $\begingroup$ maybe a permission issue? $\endgroup$ Aug 24, 2014 at 0:32

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