A Deeper Look at Git

Ruby Course


Git is a crucial skill to have, whether you’re just a hobbyist or you aim to become a professional web developer. It’s the “save” button on steroids and allows for seamless collaboration. There really aren’t all that many commands for you to learn, but sometimes the real difficulty of Git comes from visualizing what’s happening.

In this lesson, we’ll help with the visualization by diving deeper than just the git add and git commit and git push commands you’ve mostly been using. We’ll cover topics such as Remotes, Pointers, and Changing Git History. This will expand your understanding of what’s actually going on under the hood with Git.

It is very important to take a look at all of this before progressing any further with the curriculum. The project work is becoming more and more complex, so using a disciplined Git workflow is no longer optional. Hopefully, after going through this lesson, you’ll be much more comfortable changing your Git history and have a better understanding of Git as a whole.

Lesson overview

This section contains a general overview of topics that you will learn in this lesson.

  • History-changing Git commands
  • Different ways of changing history
  • Using remotes to change history
  • Dangers of history-changing operations
  • Best practices of history-changing operations
  • Pointers

Changing history

So let’s say you’re comfortable writing good commit messages and you’re working with branches to have a good Git workflow going. But nobody is perfect, and as you’re writing some beautiful code something goes wrong! Maybe you commit too early and are missing a file. Maybe you mess up one of your commit messages and omit a vital detail.

Let’s look at some ways we can change recent and distant history to fit our needs. We’re going to cover how to:

  • Change our most recent commit
  • Change multiple commit messages
  • Reorder commits
  • Squash commits together
  • Split up commits

Getting set up

Before we get started with the lesson, let’s create a Git playground in which we can safely follow along with the code and perform history-changing operations. Go to GitHub, and as you have in the past, create a new repository. Call it whatever you’d like, and clone this repository to your local system. Now, let’s cd into the repository we just cloned and create some new files! Once you’re in the repository, follow along with the following commands (including the typo). Look them up if you’re confused about anything that’s happening.

touch test{1..4}.md
git add && git commit -m 'Create first file'
git add && git commit -m 'Create send file'
git add && git commit -m 'Create third file and create fourth file'

Setting up the code editor

To perform certain Git commands that require opening a text editor, such as git commit --amend and git rebase -i, it’s important to configure your code editor correctly. By default, Git opens the text editor in the command-line interface (CLI), which may prevent you from saving and closing the editor after making changes.

To set up your code editor properly, you can follow the instructions provided in the Git Basics lesson. Here’s the specific section that covers the process: Changing the Git Commit Message Editor.

Changing the last commit

So if we look at the last commit we made Uh-Oh!, if you type in git status and git log you can see we forgot to add a file! Let’s add our missing file and run git commit --amend

git add
git commit --amend

What happened here is we first updated the staging area to include the missing file, and then we replaced the last commit with our new one to include the missing file. If we wanted to, we could have changed the message of the commit and it would have overwritten the message of the past commit.

Remember to only amend commits that have not been pushed anywhere! The reason for this is that git commit --amend does not edit the last commit, it replaces that commit with an entirely new one. This means that you could potentially destroy a commit other developers are basing their work on. When rewriting history always make sure that you’re doing so in a safe manner, and that your coworkers are aware of what you’re doing.

Changing multiple commits

Now let’s say we have commits further back in our history that we want to modify. This is where the beautiful command git rebase comes into play! We’re going to get deeper into the complexities of rebase later on in this lesson, but for now we’re going to start out with some very basic usage.

git rebase -i is a command which allows us to interactively stop after each commit we’re trying to modify, and then make whatever changes we wish. We do have to tell this command which is the last commit we want to edit. For example, git rebase -i HEAD~2 allows us to edit the last two commits. Let’s see what this looks like in action, go ahead and type in:

git log
git rebase -i HEAD~2

You should notice that when rebasing, the commits are listed in opposite order compared to how we see them when we use git log. Take a minute to look through all of the options the interactive tool offers you. Now let’s look at the commit messages at the top of the tool. If we wanted to edit one of these commits, we would change the word pick to be edit for the appropriate commit. If we wanted to remove a commit, we would remove it from the list, and if we wanted to change their order, we would change their position in the list. Let’s see what an edit looks like!

edit eacf39d Create send file
pick 92ad0af Create third file and create fourth file

This would allow us to edit the typo in the Create send file commit to be Create second file. Perform similar changes in your interactive rebase tool, but don’t copy and paste the above code since it won’t work. Save and exit the editor, which will allow us to edit the commit with the following instructions:

You can amend the commit now, with
       git commit --amend
Once you're satisfied with your changes, run
       git rebase --continue

So let’s edit our commit by typing git commit --amend, fixing the typo in the title, and then finishing the rebase by typing git rebase --continue. That’s all there is to it! Have a look at your handiwork by typing git log, and seeing the changed history. It seems simple, but this is a very dangerous tool if misused, so be careful. Most importantly, remember that if you have to rebase commits in a shared repository, make sure you’re doing so for a very good reason that your coworkers are aware of.

Squashing commits

Using squash for our commits is a very handy way of keeping our Git history tidy. It’s important to know how to squash, because this process may be the standard on some development teams. Squashing makes it easier for others to understand the history of your project. What often happens when a feature is merged, is we end up with some visually complex logs of all the changes a feature branch had on a main branch. These commits are important while the feature is in development, but aren’t really necessary when looking through the entire history of your main branch.

Let’s say we want to squash the second commit into the first commit on the list, which is Create first file. First let’s rebase all the way back to our root commit by typing git rebase -i --root. Now what we’ll do is pick that first commit, as the one which the second commit is being squashed into:

pick e30ff48 Create first file
squash 92aa6f3 Create second file
pick 05e5413 Create third file and create fourth file

Rename the commit to Create first and second file, then finish the rebase. That’s it! Run git log and see how the first two commits got squashed together.

Splitting up a commit

Before diving into Remotes, we’re going to have a look at a handy Git command called git reset. Let’s have a look at the commit Create third file and create fourth file. At the moment we’re using blank files for convenience, but let’s say these files contained functionality and the commit was describing too much at once. In that case what we could do is split it up into two smaller commits by, once again, using the interactive rebase tool.

We can open up the tool just like last time, change pick to edit for the commit we’re going to split. But instead, what we’re going to do is run git reset HEAD^, which resets the commit to the one right before HEAD. This allows us to add the files individually and commit them individually. All together it would look something like this:

git reset HEAD^
git add && git commit -m 'Create third file'
git add && git commit -m 'Create fourth file'

Let’s start by looking a bit closer at what happened here. When you ran git reset, you reset the current branch by pointing HEAD at the commit right before it. At the same time, git reset also updated the index (the staging area) with the contents of wherever HEAD is now pointed. So our staging area was also reset to what it was at the prior commit - which is great - because this allowed us to add and commit both files separately.

Now let’s say we want to move where HEAD points to but don’t want to touch the staging area. If we want to leave the index alone, you can use git reset --soft. This would only perform the first part of git reset where the HEAD is moved to point somewhere else.

You can think of git reset --soft as a more powerful amend. Instead of changing the last commit, you can go back multiple commits and combine all the changes included in them into one commit.

The last part of reset we want to touch upon is git reset --hard. What this does is it performs all the steps of git reset, moving the HEAD and updating the index, but it also updates the working directory. This is important to note because it can be dangerous as it can potentially destroy data. A hard reset overwrites the files in the working directory to make it look exactly like the staging area of wherever HEAD ends up pointing to. Similarly to git commit --amend, a hard reset is a destructive command which overwrites history. This doesn’t mean you should completely avoid it if working with shared repositories on a team with other developers. You should, however, make sure you know exactly why you’re using it, and that your coworkers are also aware of how and why you’re using it.

Branches are pointers

While the focus of this lesson was more advanced tools for changing Git history, we’re going into another advanced topic that might be hard for some to understand - Pointers. You’ve already learned about branches in the Rock Paper Scissors revisited lesson and how these hold multiple alternate reality versions of our files. Now we’re going to discuss what that actually means under the hood, and what it means for branches to be pointers.

Before we dive into branches, let’s talk about commits. If you recall this Git basics lesson from foundations, they were described as Snapshots. If it helps, think of this in a very literal sense. Every time you type in git commit, your computer is taking a picture of all the file contents that have been staged with git add. In other words, your entire tracked workspace gets copied.

So what is a branch? Based off of your exposure, you might be visualizing a branch as a group of commits. This actually isn’t the case! A branch is actually a pointer to a single commit! Hearing this, your first thought might be “Well if a branch is just a finger pointing at a single commit, how does that single commit know about all the commits that came before it?” The answer to this question is very simple: Each commit is also a pointer that points to the commit that came before it! Wow. This might be a lot to take in, so let’s take a moment to absorb that fact.

Now that you’ve had a second to gather your thoughts and attempt to wrap your head around this concept, it might help to go back and look at a concrete example of pointers we used in this lesson. Let’s think back to our use of git rebase -i HEAD~2. If you can remember, this command lets us edit the last two commits. Do you have any guesses on how Git knew which two commits to edit? That’s right, by using pointers! We start at HEAD, which is a special pointer for keeping track of the branch you’re currently on. HEAD points to our most recent commit in the current branch. That commit points to the commit made directly before it, which we can call commit two. That’s how git rebase -i HEAD~2 starts with a HEAD pointer, and then follows subsequent pointers to find which two commits to edit.

You might be feeling overwhelmed at this point, so let’s recap what we’ve learned. A branch is a pointer to a single commit. A commit is a snapshot, and it’s a pointer to the commit directly behind it in history. That’s it!


  1. Read the chapter on Rebasing covered by git-scm for an even deeper dive into Rebasing.

  2. Read the chapter on Reset covered by git-scm for a deeper dive into git reset.

Knowledge check

The following questions are an opportunity to reflect on key topics in this lesson. If you can’t answer a question, click on it to review the material, but keep in mind you are not expected to memorize or master this knowledge.

Additional resources

This section contains helpful links to related content. It isn’t required, so consider it supplemental.

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