Command-line Git Basics

Git is a very powerful tool with a lot of commands. Here is the small subset of commands that I use a million times a day.

Note: We’ve added some aliases for the below commands to our Gitpod workspaces to make them quicker to type, but it’s good that you know the underlying commands so that you can use them when you’re on unfamiliar computers. Also, in case our aliases ever fail, use the real Git commands and they will always work.

Initialize a repo

To initialize a repository in a folder:

git init

Create a commit

To take a snapshot of your work (all of the files and subfolders), use the following two commands from the root folder of the repository:

git add -A
git commit -m "Title of your snapshot"

Stage files one at a time

git add -A adds all of the files and subfolders in the project to the commit. You don’t have to do that — if you only want to add the changes from one or two files, you can “stage” them one at a time:

git add path/to/file1
git add location/of/file2
git commit -m "My surgical commit"

Always Be Committing

Try to make the title somewhat descriptive of what you did since the last snapshot, but it’s more important that you just make lots of commits. So if you must just say git commit -m "WIP" (for “work in progress”), that’s fine; we can clean it up later.

Our golden rule: Always Be Committing. As long as you do that, everything will be okay; we can recover from anything with Git as long as you commit early and often. You cannot _over_commit but you can most certainly _under_commit.

Check your status often

To see the current status of the repository (are there any changed files since the last commit? etc):

git status

See what’s changed with diff

To see the line-by-line changes since the last commit:

git diff

Create a new branch

To start a new version, or branch:

git checkout -b fancy-new-version-name

Again, branch early and often. There’s no cost to it and there’s lots of benefits to it. In particular, it’s good to start a new branch for each task or feature. Or just a different approach to the same task, if you want to start over.

Switch to a different branch

To list all branches:

git branch

To switch to another existing branch:

git checkout branch-name

Stash changes

Sometimes, if you have made edits to files that you haven’t committed yet, it won’t let you switch to another branch. Which is good; you have to make a decision about those changes first — do you want to save them or not? Your options:

  • Make a commit first, and then you can switch to the other branch.
  • If you don’t want to pollute your current branch, you can make a new branch, commit the changes, and then switch to the other branch.
  • You can quickly “stash” the changes with git add -A; git stash. This puts the changes into a randomly named branch that will eventually be deleted after a few weeks, but until then you can get the changes back if you want them. This is the equivalent of the above, but saves you the trouble of having to think of a name for the new branch.

I usually just think of git add -A; git stash as a convenient way to discard all the changes since my most recent commit, so that I can start afresh; but, there is a way to get those changes back if I want them (this only happens about once a year).

See the git log

To see the history of your current branch:

git log

You will see the author, date, and title of each commit preceded by a long sequence of letters and numbers known as the “SHA-1 hash” of the commit. This is a unique fingerprint of the snapshot.

To see a graph of all your branches at once, try:

git log --oneline --decorate --graph --all -30

Jump back to a previous commit

To jump back to a prior commit:

git checkout [SHA of commit you want to go back to]

Find the SHA by looking at the output if git log. Just the first 7 or so digits of the SHA are enough; you don’t need the whole thing.

If you jump to a commit like this, you’ll be in a “detached” state — i.e., not on any branch. This is okay for browsing, but it’s best not to make any changes.

If you want to start a new branch from this point, though, that’s perfectly fine — I do that all the time when I decide I want to try a new approach. Just git checkout -b new-branch-name and then continue making commits as usual.

Push to GitHub

When you’re ready to send the work you’ve done on a branch back to

git push

The very first time you push to a branch, it may ask you to do something like:

git push --set-upstream origin your-branch-name

The very first time you push from Gitpod, it may ask you to give it permission to do so from GitHub. Go ahead and do so.

Pull from GitHub

To retrieve the freshest version of the branch you’re on from, in case there have been any updates:

git pull

Start on a new task

When you’re ready to start on a new task, the best practice is to first switch back to the main branch, get the freshest version, and then to start a new branch from there:

git checkout main
git pull
git checkout -b my-next-task

Don’t commit to main

It’s almost never a good idea to make commits directly to the main branch. Make a new branch, make commits to it as you’re working, push your changes to GitHub, open a Pull Request, review your changes there in the Files Changed tab and make sure everything looks good.

Merging branches

When you’re ready to bring the changes from one branch (usually from one of your experimental branches, e.g. your-name-first-branch) into another branch (usually into the main branch), we have a couple of options:

  1. Fundamentally, we use Git’s merge command at the command-line.
  2. In the early days, I recommend pushing your branch to GitHub and using GitHub’s interface for merging.

Use GitHub’s interface to merge

To merge changes from e.g. your-name-first-branch into main remotely using GitHub’s web UI:

  1. Push your branch to GitHub:

    git checkout your-name-first-branch
    git push
  2. Create a Pull Request.
  3. If there have been any commits on main since the time you branched off it, and if any of those commits have modified the same lines of code that your commits have modified, you will have to reconcile how you want those conflicts to be handled.
  4. Merge the PR. You’re given a few strategies to choose from on how to do so; choose Squash and merge. This will combine all of your work-in-progress commits into just one commit; now’s your chance to craft a wonderful commit message to communicate the WHY of your changes (the WHAT is told by the diff).
  5. Switch back to main on your machine and fetch the merged version:

    git checkout main
    git pull

git merge command

To merge changes from e.g. your-name-first-branch into main locally using git merge:

  1. First switch to main and make sure it is up to date:

    git checkout main
    git pull
  2. Switch back to your feature branch and “rebase interactively” onto main. This means, essentially, sync up the feature branch with any changes that may have occurred on main since they time you created the branch:

    git checkout your-name-first-branch
    git rebase main -i
  3. A text editor will pop up with a list of all of the commits you made along the way on your feature branch. Replace pick for all but the first one of them with s (for squash). Save and close the file.
  4. Another text editor will open where you can craft a wonderful commit message to communicate the WHY of your changes (the WHAT is told by the diff).
  5. Now that all your messy work-in-progress commits have been ironed out, we can merge:

    git checkout main
    git merge your-name-first-branch
  6. That’s it — verify with git log. It’s as if you made one, beautiful commit directly to main.
  7. Now you can git push your main to GitHub to share your work with your team and make it an official, unchangeable part of the history.
  8. git checkout -b a new branch for your next task, rinse, and repeat.

You may hear about many other commands available in Git (cherry-pick, reflog, bisect), and they can indeed come in handy in rare cases, but the above workflow is extremely powerful and are the commands that I use 99.99% of the time. They will take you far, once you get the hang of them.