Common local Git operations

This is a summary of concepts in common Git operations. We will discuss brach, merge, rebase, cherrypick, stash and reset. We will not discuss pull, fetch, or push.

Commit, Branch and HEAD

When you run “git commit”, the following happens:

  • Git checksums each subdirectory, and stores them as a tree object (file path and name) and blob object (file content) in Git repository;
  • Git creates a commit object that has the metadata and a pointer to the root project tree; or if this is not the first commit, the pointer will point to the commit immediately before it

The operations above should form a chain of commit. It can be a long chain and may diverge into branches. In Git semantics however, a branch is simply a lightweight, movable pointer to one of the commits. The default branch name in Git is master. A Git repository may contain multiple branches and the name master itself does not suggest any privilege. There is also a special pointer called HEAD, which indicates the branch you are currently working on. So branch is essentially a pointer to a commit; HEAD is essentially a pointer to a branch. “git checkout” can switch branch that HEAD points to.

Basic Merge

One type of basic merge simply moves branch pointer from one commit to another (along the same chain) without creating any commit. Here is a diagram before basic merge:

Hotfix branch based on `master`.
Before basic merge, Hotfix branch is based on master

The following command performs basic merge:

$ git checkout master
$ git merge hotfix
Updating f42c576..3a0874c
 index.html | 2 ++
 1 file changed, 2 insertions(+)

Then Git simply moves the pointer (named master) forward. There is no divergent work to move together, hence no chance of merge conflict. This type of basic merge is also called “fast-forward” merge.

`master` is fast-forwarded to `hotfix`.
After basic merge, master is fast-forwarded to hotfix

The other type of merge involves reconciling divergent work together, which may or may not involve conflict. Suppose this is the commit tree to start with:

Three snapshots used in a typical merge.
Three snapshots used in a typical merge

The following commands perform the merge:

$ git checkout master
Switched to branch 'master'
$ git merge iss53
Merge made by the 'recursive' strategy.
index.html |    1 +
1 file changed, 1 insertion(+)

Instead of just moving the branch pointer forward, Git creates a new snapshot that results from this three-way merge and automatically creates a new commit that points to it. This is referred to as a merge commit, and is special in that it has more than one parent.

A merge commit.
A merge commit

Now that your work is merged in, you have no further need for the iss53 branch. You can close the issue in your issue-tracking system, and delete the branch:

$ git branch -d iss53

If commits from two respective branches changes the same file in different ways, then there is a merge conflict. In this case, Git cannot just create a merge commit. Instead it asks the user to resolve the conflict first. You have to choose either side of the change, or just merge the content yourself. At this point, if you introduce a change that does not appear in any parent, it is referred to as an evil merge.

Beyond the basic merge, there are more sophisticated merge conflict resolution tools covered in advanced merging.

Merge and Rebase

There are two ways to integrate changes from one branch to another. Merge and rebase. Suppose your commit chain diverge into a master branch and a feature branch. Merging (from feature to master) takes the content of feature branch and integrate it with master branch.

$ git checkout master
$ git merge feature

When you rebase a feature branch onto master, you move the base of the feature branch to master branch’s ending point.

$ git checkout feature
$ git rebase master

After merge, you are still on the same branch. The commits from other branch are integrated into the branch that you are already on. There is no change in any existing commits (history). After rebase, your base will be moved to a different branch, along with the commits that you have made in the previous branch (since the diverge). In other words, by re-playing those commits on a different branch, it changed history.

merge vs rebase

The chart above is stolen from this article, which does a better job explain in detail the difference, pros and cons of merge and rebase. Merge does create a “merge commit”, and a git history full of merges can be cluttered. Rebase does not create an extra commit but since it changes the history of a branch, it has impact to other collaborators. It can be done in an interactive way (with -i switch). The golden rules of rebasing is covered in this article. One of the principles is that never perform a rebase on a public branch.


In a cherrypick operation, the current branch does not change. You simply pick interested commits from other branches to re-apply to your current branch. You may pick a single or a series of commits from other branch. These commits are not “moved” to your current branch. They remain intact. They are just re-played as new commit to current branch. Unlike rebase, there is no re-writing of history, hence not as dangerous.

Reset and Stash

Suppose you are working on a part of a project and it starts getting messy. There has been an urgent bug that needs your immediate attention. It is time to save your changes and switch branches. If you are okay to give up your uncommitted work, you may perform a reset, in one of the three modes covered in a previous article.

But most likely, you don’t want to do a commit of half-done work. The solution is git stash. Stashing is handy if you need to quickly switch context and work on something else but you’re mid-way through a code change and aren’t quite ready to commit. In the most basic workflow, you need to run this command to save your uncommitted work:

$ git stash

Now your working directory is clean with all uncommitted local changes saved. You can perform any other Git operations. When you are ready to resume from where you left off, you may pop the stash:

$ git stash pop

Instead of pop, you can use apply to keep the changes in working directory. More details are on this page from Bitbutket.