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How to Git

This assumes you are comfortable using the OSX or Linux terminal to change directories and look at their contents using the cd and ls commands. It also assumes that you have the command-line git program installed, and not a graphical git program.

There is a difference between using Github and using git. "git" in lowercase is the name of the version control system software. "Github" is a website where many millions of git repositories are mirrored and there are graphical tools for looking at them and sharing them.

Let's say I'm working on a repository, and my goal today is to add my name to the contributors listed in a README file.

  1. Start with a Github account. Make sure you know your username and password.

  2. Go to a directory on your computer where you'd like to maintain projects. I have a /Users/ari/Projects directory where all my random projects live. Inside that, do not create a directory just for your new project, because git clone will create it for you.

  3. Go to the URL of the Github repository. This will be something like You're going to "clone" it on your computer. In your terminal window, type git clone with a space after the word 'clone' but do not press Enter yet.

    Click the "HTTPS" link in the right-hand-side column on the repo's main page. Copy the repository URL (it starts with https and ends with .git) to the clipboard and paste it after git clone. Now you can press Enter.

    For my repo on Github named "Treasury" this looks like: $ git clone

  4. Go into the newly created repo directory. For me this would be /Users/ari/Projects/Treasury/.

  5. Create a branch.

    Important: Most git tutorials do not start with branching. I think everyone should learn to do this right away. Knowing how to work with branches will save you a lot of time untangling problems on master.

    A branch is a version of the repository where you can make changes without messing up the main version (called "master"). If you're ever unhappy with how the changes are going in your branch, you can just delete the whole thing and start fresh, without messing up master.

    Think of a name for your new branch that will help you remember what you intend to do with it. It's best to make a new branch any time you have a specific task in mind. Use the git checkout command to set up the branch.

    $ git checkout -b edit-readme-file master

    In English this would mean "Check out a new branch from 'master' and call it 'edit-readme-file'". However, for the git checkout command, the new branch name comes before the origin name.

    Checking out a branch is kind of like changing a TV channel. Once you enter a git checkout command, you would say you are "on that branch". If you were to type git checkout master you would be back on the "master" branch.

  6. Start making changes. Here I would look for a file called in my project and edit it in a text editor to add my name.

  7. Once done making a change, you need to tell git about the changed file so that it knows you are done.

    Core git flow: Stage, Commit, Push

    The first two steps, stage and commit, make changes to your local repository on your computer. Push means to push the changes to the source repository.

    Before you do anything else, type git status:

    $ git status

    I would see a list of "unstaged" changes with one entry,, which is the same file as I just edited.

    So I tell git to "stage" the changes:

    $ git stage

    Now if I type git status again, has been upgraded to "staged" status, and I have no other unstaged changes. The git stage command expects you to stage files one by one. This means that if you make several changes, you can save just certain ones without being stuck with every change all at once. (You can also git stage with multiple file names on the same line. Or you could just type git stage . with a dot to stage everything, but I feel that tends to cause more mistakes.)

    You might see references to the "git add" command ‒ "git stage" and "git add" are aliases to the same operation, but "git stage" is more descriptive.

  8. Commit your changes. git commit only works on whatever changes have been staged. If I hadn't done the git stage step, git commit would do nothing. But I did stage the file, so when I type:

    $ git commit -m "Added my name to README"

    git goes ahead and commits the edit, with a log message that says "Added my name to README".

    Now I could, if I wanted to, type git log and see a record of that change. git log shows the most recent change at the top.

    At this point, the edit-readme-file branch on my own computer knows that I made the change to But, the "master" branch doesn't know about that change yet, and neither does Github. If my computer hard drive died right now, my work would not be on Github anywhere.

  9. So what now? I'm at a fork in the road. I have a choice of ways I could get the work onto Github. My method depends on whether I am working with other people.

    If I am working with others, we all agree to a standard that nobody commits code to "master" without allowing someone else to take a look and approve it. Not all working groups do this, but it's considered a best practice for code quality and general politeness. Going this route, I would merge through a Github pull request.

    If I'm just working by myself, I can merge my changes directly into my local "master" and then push "master" to Github.

    Let's look at it both ways. Skip to method 2 if you're working without collaborators.

Merge Method 1: Collaborative Merging Through Github

Github has a very nice graphical UI that makes it easy to see what changes someone is proposing to push into a branch. So first I check that I am ready to push. If git log shows the commit message that I care about, I'm ready to push the branch.

I type:

$ git push origin edit-readme-file

This is the point where the git program on my computer will try talking to Github's servers. This is where I need to know my username and password. If that works (if I got my password right, and if Github already thinks my account is a contributor to the repo) then Github will receive the command from my computer and create an "edit-readme-file" branch on its own servers, containing everything I did on my edit-readme-file.

This is really exciting. It means that I can ask to get my changes merged into the shared master, and it also means that anyone working with me is able to check out that branch (just the branch!) to add more work to it, again without messing up anyone's master.

So, now that I have pushed, I go to the project repository page on Github. That'd be

Github auto-detects that you just recently pushed a branch, and will probably display a yellow-tinted banner with a green button saying "Compare & pull request". Click this button if available. If for any reason this banner is not shown, you can still make a pull request by clicking "Pull requests" in the navigation column to the right.

Start off your pull request by checking that the branch targets look correct. A blue-tinted box above the pull request description will say something like "tensory:master ... tensory:edit-readme-file". You should read that as, "Into master, merge the branch named edit-readme-file." If any part of that looks wrong, click Edit to fix it.

Remember that on the LEFT side you want the name of the target branch that changes are going INTO, and on the RIGHT side is the branch name that you are about to merge into the target. "Master" is usually the target branch.

You can optionally fill out the form that appears on the "Write" tab to help explain the intent of the changes you hope to merge.

When you're happy with the description, click "Send pull request". Then copy the URL of the resulting page and email it to someone else, who has the opportunity to read and comment on your code. If you make more pushes to the same branch (perhaps in response to review comments), the pull request will automatically be updated with changes.

When you are totally happy, and so is your collaborator, one of you can hit the "Merge" button at the very bottom of the pull request page. By convention, you (and not the reviewer) would get to hit merge, as a little reward for all your hard work. :)

Merge Method 2: Local Merging

Use this method if you're developing by yourself and you're only interested in getting your branch changes into master, without a review step.

Once you feel you are done with your working branch, do a git status:

$ git status

If you see any files that are STAGED but NOT COMMITTED, git will not let you continue with this process. Unstaged files will be ignored, committed files will be included, but staged files stand in the way.

If you want to unstage anything, you can do it with git reset (you can google it for the exact process.) Now's the time to do one last git commit -m if you see any stragglers. But let's assume that all the files you wanted to commit are committed.

OKAY. Now, remember your working branch name (git status will tell you if you forgot). Now change to master:

$ git checkout master

Ok, you're on master. Now's a good time to do a git pull on master to make very sure that's up to date: (Do it anyway, even if you're the sole contributor, to get in the habit)

$ git pull origin master

Assuming that all went fine, do your merge!

Just FYI: By default, git will automatically commit your merged branch. You can disable that, but it's fine most of the time. This merge attempt may open up your default command-line text editor, most likely vi or vim, and ask you to write a comment describing the merge. It will put some not-very-helpful text in there by default. You can edit the auto-comment to make it more descriptive. You will have to finish the merge by exiting vim with :wq. I just wanted to point this out so that you're not too startled by the context change.

$ git merge edit-readme-file

Write your commit message and type :wq (colon w q, Enter). That's the vi command to save-and-quit, not a git thing.

So, you've "staged" and "committed" the branch files by doing the merge, so we come to the final step:

$ git push origin master


Go to Github and admire your freshly merged master branch. Back on the command line, you can delete your finished branch with:

$ git branch -D edit-readme-file

Thanks for reading! Please direct comments/improvements to me at or send me a pull request.

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