loading...
Cover image for A Thorough Introduction to Git's Interactive Patch Mode

A Thorough Introduction to Git's Interactive Patch Mode

krnsk0 profile image Jon Kurinsky Updated on ・8 min read

You've been hacking away at a project when you realize: "I haven't committed in an hour." Or, perhaps worse still: "my unstaged changes represent multiple units of work"-- whether those units are features, steps in a refactor, or bugfixes.

Suppose you run git status and you see unstaged changes in multiple files. Suppose further that you can say with confidence that the changes are divided among the files in a way that corresponds to a division between discrete units of work. So far, so good; you're in a position to git add and git commit files separately, resulting in a history in which units of work are appropriately separated from one another.

But what if changes representing separate units of work exist within single files? Suppose, in your hour of undisciplined hacking, you added a new feature to one function inside of app.js, but also added a bugfix to a different function found in the same file?

Here, git adding files separately can't help you; you need to be able to stage and commit regions within files. These are called hunks, in git. And to work with hunks, git gives us an interactive patch mode, which we can enter with the commands git add -patch or git add -p.

Introducing Patch Mode

Patch mode is a small CLI application which intelligently divides unstaged changes into hunks and presents these hunks to us in turn so we can decide whether or not to stage each one. (It is available directly via git add -p, but also available within the git add -interactive interface, not discussed in this post.)

Let's say we start off with an app.js that looks like this:

const countToNumber = number => {
  console.log(`Let's count to ${number}`);
  for (let i = 0; i < number; i += 1) {
    console.log(i);
  }
  console.log(`We counted to ${number}!`);
};

const numbers = [100, 1000, 50, 35];

numbers.forEach(number => {
  countToNumber(number);
});

Suppose we've made a few changes. After realizing that countToNumber stops just short of the target, we change < to <= in the line that initializes the loop.

Then we decide we don't want to invoke countToNumber, in this file, but instead want to export a function that can produce side effects to the console for use elsewhere. We wrap the last three lines in a function, which we export:

export const processNumbers = numbers => {
  numbers.forEach(number => {
    countToNumber(number);
  });
};

We also delete the numbers array which we (perhaps) used to test our work, now that we're ready to export the function we've written.

Finally, we decide we also want to expose a function for filtering numbers before printing to the console, so we add a filter function:

export const filterNumbers = (numbers, maximum) => {
  return numbers.filter(n => n < maximum);
};

Having made these changes, we realize we want to split them up. So, we run git add -p app.js, and git gives us back the following:

diff --git a/app.js b/app.js
index eceb575..c97e738 100644
--- a/app.js
+++ b/app.js
@@ -1,13 +1,17 @@
 const countToNumber = number => {
   console.log(`Let's count to ${number}`);
-  for (let i = 0; i < number; i += 1) {
+  for (let i = 0; i <= number; i += 1) {
     console.log(i);
   }
   console.log(`We counted to ${number}!`);
 };

-const numbers = [100, 1000, 50, 35];
+export const processNumbers = numbers => {
+  numbers.forEach(number => {
+    countToNumber(number);
+  });
+};

-numbers.forEach(number => {
-  countToNumber(number);
-});
+export const filterNumbers = (numbers, maximum) => {
+  return numbers.filter(n => n < maximum);
+};
Stage this hunk [y,n,q,a,d,s,e,?]?

Note: Don't read too much into the diff --git line in the output; the diff command has no such option. This is just a hard-coded string in the git diff output to help us understand what git is doing with reference to whatever knowledge we may have of diff, and also to indicate a format for this diff output (a variant of the unified diff format). If you've used git diff, then what you see here should be familiar to you.

The output of git diff, by the way, can be redirected into a file called a patch which can be saved somewhere or passed to a friend before being later applied: git diff > mypatch.patch and then git apply mypatch.patch. (Or, if you want to do this with staged as opposed to unstaged changes, redirect git diff --cached.) This is related to why the tool we're exploring here is called 'patch mode', but a full exploration of how git works in this respect deserves its own post.

We can see that git has decided to group all of the changes into a single hunk. But we want to split them up. We'll talk about all of the commands later; for now we'll choose s (to [s]plit this hunk), and git shows us just the part we want:

@@ -1,8 +1,8 @@
 const countToNumber = number => {
   console.log(`Let's count to ${number}`);
-  for (let i = 0; i < number; i += 1) {
+  for (let i = 0; i <= number; i += 1) {
     console.log(i);
   }
   console.log(`We counted to ${number}!`);
 };

Now we're talking. Let's choose y, to stage this hunk, and then q, for '[q]uit'. This takes us out of interactive mode and back to the command line. If we run git status, we'll see that there are both staged and unstaged changes in app.js-- which is exactly what we want. We can commit our first unit of work using something like git commit -m "fix bug which stopped count just short of number", and then stage the next unit.

So, we run git add -p app.js. After splitting using s, git isolates the changes to processNumbers:

@@ -6,5 +6,9 @@
-const numbers = [100, 1000, 50, 35];
+export const processNumbers = numbers => {
+  numbers.forEach(number => {
+    countToNumber(number);
+  });
+};

Now we choose y and then q, as before, and then we can make a commit: git commit -m "export function which wraps countToNumber". We could go back into interactive mode, but we know the only remaining uncommitted change represents a single unit of work, so we can add it and commit in the usual way.

Now we have a history in which our commits represent discrete units of work:

commit bc80191fe63bf75bae7d976b61cf1c24e9391097 (HEAD -> master)
Author: Dev.to Reader <dev.to@reader.com>
Date:   Sun Jul 28 10:48:37 2019 -0500

    export function for filtering lists of numbers

commit 6c36b351cc2a8cc0f6f3582b3221f5e427980fbc
Author: Dev.to Reader <dev.to@reader.com>
Date:   Sun Jul 28 10:47:02 2019 -0500

    export function which wraps countToNumber

commit 0b59f6917215a5c264735e4ed01cf6d1f3c977e4
Author: Dev.to Reader <dev.to@reader.com>
Date:   Sun Jul 28 10:40:25 2019 -0500

    fix bug which stopped count just short of number

Patch Mode Commands

Running ? or h will show us the commands available in patch mode:

y - stage this hunk
n - do not stage this hunk
q - quit; do not stage this hunk or any of the remaining ones
a - stage this hunk and all later hunks in the file
d - do not stage this hunk or any of the later hunks in the file
g - select a hunk to go to
/ - search for a hunk matching the given regex
j - leave this hunk undecided, see next undecided hunk
J - leave this hunk undecided, see next hunk
k - leave this hunk undecided, see previous undecided hunk
K - leave this hunk undecided, see previous hunk
e - manually edit the current hunk
? - print help

We've seen y, q, and s, which allow us to stage hunks, quit, and split into smaller hunks, respectively. We'll return to the topic of splitting soon.

Very commonly, after entering patch mode and splitting, I'll page through hunks with jJkK to orient myself in a file, looking for patterns in the changes I can group together before staging a few and exiting.

Importantly, patch mode can be called on a file (git add -p app.js) or on the entire repository (git add -p), so if you have changes in multiple files but know you want to hunkify changes in just one file, you can do so. a and d are intended for use in a context in which we've entered patch mode with many files in our pathspec, as they help us deal with changes in a file in bulk. Generally, we probably wouldn't be in interactive mode if we wanted to deal with changes in bulk, according to the file in which they appear; thus I find myself using d sometimes and a almost never.

The g command gives us an interactive menu showing filenames and line numbers for all hunks. I also don't find myself using this one much, as I don't usually know just what files and lines I'm interested in staging prior to having them presented to me.

The / command, however, can be very useful. When I'm going through a lot of changes and discover some work I'd like to group together sharing some common searchable feature--say, a reference to a particular variable or function--I'll pare down the changes using / and y until / stops returning results.

Selecting e opens up the current hunk in whatever editor you have configured git to use (git config --global core.editor) to allow line-by-line staging. This is most useful when you've reached the minimum hunk size that interactive mode will give you and need very fine control over what is being committed. We'll return to this in a moment.

Intent to Add

If you add a new file to a repository, add some contents, and then run git diff, you won't see anything from your new file in the output. This is because git diff shows us unstaged changes relative to the staging area, and if we haven't yet tracked a file, it's not yet available for comparison.

Because interactive add mode is built around git diff, changes to a new untracked file aren't at first visible in patch mode. We could of course git add the file, but this leads to a conundrum, as now we'll have staged the entire file. There are a couple of ways to solve this.

One less conventional solution might be to use git reset -p-- as it turns out git reset also has an interactive patch mode. We could use this to unstage all changes from the new file but the ones we intend to commit, and then make a commit.

But this is cumbersome. A more conventional and faster solution is to use the command git add --intent-to-add (or its shorthand git add -N). This allows us add a file but not its contents to the staging area, which means git diff and git add -p will give us what we want.

Developer Workflow & Limits of Hunks

The occasional need for e shows some of the limits of interactive patch mode. Options for git diff let us specify some defaults for hunks: git config --global diff.context lets us set the number of lines of context to provide around a change, while the diff.interHunkContext option lets us set the number of lines which should appear between hunks, allowing us some control over hunk size.

But, despite the control we get over defaults, git always groups changes to adjacent lines together. If changes on consecutive lines represent different units of work, we'll need to manually edit the patch using e, which gives us the most fine-grained control it is possible to exercise over the contents of our commits.

Patches have some limits tightly coupled to the limits of git itself: the smallest unit of change in git is a line, and so if we have made multiple changes to a line which represent distinct units of work, git can't help us record these separately.

But this is just to say that interactive patch mode is no substitute or an organized development process. While it can help us recover from the occasional session in which we have not exercised the kind of git discipline which a task or team demands of us, it can like any tool be mis- or over-used. So, don't let the availability of git add -p replace thought and planning in your workflow.

Posted on by:

krnsk0 profile

Jon Kurinsky

@krnsk0

Thing-builder, problem-solver @ IKEA

Discussion

markdown guide
 

Is it possible to see conflicts before merging the code using git ?

 

Yes. Say you're in the master branch and you want to check a branch called 'feature' for conflicts. Do git merge feature --no-ff --no-commit. Once you have what you need, to get out of the state this puts git in, do git merge --abort.

 

it seems like they changed the behaviour on git add --intent-to-add, i can no longer git add -p on a new file, the e option doesn't appear or work