Git for n00b


A detailed tutorial of Git for people knowing very few about versions systems. You’ll understand utility of such program and how we use modern version control system. I try to stay as pragmatic as possible.

Begin with conclusion

Here is the list of sufficient and necessary command to use Git. There is very few. It is normal not to understand immediately but it is to gives you an idea. Even if this article is long, 95% of Git usage is in these 7 commands:

Get a project from the web:

Everyday Git usage:

This article is written for people knowing very few about versionning systems. It is also written for those who had didn’t followed progress since CVS or subversion (SVN). This is why, in a first time I’ll explain quickly which are the goal of such systems. Secondly, I’ll explain how to install and configure Git. Then, I give the command for each feature a DCVS must have.

Git for what?

If you just want to use Git immediately, just read dark part. You read this part later to understand correctly foundations of version systems and not doing strange things.

Git is a DCVS, which means a Decentralized Concurrent Versions System. Let’s analyze each part of this long term:

Versions System

Firstly, versions system manage files. When somebody work with files without a versions system, the following happens frequently:

When you modify a somehow critical file you don’t want to loose. You copy naturally this file with another name. For example:

In consequence of what, the new file, play the role of backup. If you break everything, you can always return in the last state by overwriting your modifications. Of course, this method is not very professional and is a bit limited. If you make many modifications, you’ll end with many files with strange names like:

If you want to make it works correctly, you’ll have to use naming convention. Files take many place even if you modify most of time only some lines.

Fortunately, versions system are here to help.

You only have to signal you want a new version of a file and the versions system will do the job for you. It will record the backup where it could be easily recovered. Generally, systems version do it better than you, making the backup only of the modified lines and not the total file.

Once upon a time versions were managed for each file separately. I think about CVS. Then it naturally appears projects are a coherent set of files. Recover each file separately was a tedious work. This is why versions number passed from files to the entire project.

It is therefore possible to say, “I want to get back three days earlier”.

What gives versions system? (I didn’t mention everything at all)

  • automatic backups: back in time,
  • gives the ability to see differences between each version,
  • put a tag on some version to be able to refer to them easily,
  • gives the ability to see an historic of all modifications. Generally the user must add a comment for each new version.


Version Systems are already useful to manage its own projects. They help to organize and resolve partially backup problems. I say partially because you have to backup your repository on a decent file system. But versions system are really interesting is on projects done by many people.

Let’s begin by an example, a two person project ; Alex and Beatrice. On a file containing a Lovecraft’s gods list:

Say Alex is home and modify the file:

after that he send the file on the project server. Then on the server there is the Alex file:

A bit later, Beatrice who had not get the Alex file on the server make the modification:


Beatrice send her file on the server

Alex modification is lost. One more time, versions system are here to help.

A version system would had merge the two files at the time Beatrice send the file on the server. And like by magic, on the server the file would be:


In real life, at the moment Beatrice want to send her modifications, the versions system alert her a modification had occurred on the server. Then she uses a command which pull the modification from the server to her local computer. And this command update her file. After that, Beatrice send again the new file on the server.

In what Concurrent Versions System help?

  • get without any problem others modifications,
  • send without any problem its own modifications to others,
  • manage conflicts. I didn’t speak about it, but sometimes a conflict can occur (when two different people modify the same line on a file for example). SVC help to resolve such problem. More on that later,
  • help to know who done what and when.


This word became popular only recently about CVS. And it mainly means two things:

First, until really recently (SVN), you’ll have to be connected to the distant server to get informations about a project. Like get the history. New decentralized systems work with a local REPOSITORY (directory containing backups and many informations linked to the versions system functionalities). Hence, one can view the history of a project without the need of being connected.

All instances of a project can live independently.

To be more precise, DCVS are base on the branch notion.

Practically, it has great importance. It means, everybody work separately, and the system help to glue all their work.

It is even more than just that. It help to code independently each feature and bug fixes. Under other system it was far more difficult.

Typical example:

I develop my project. I’m ameliorating something. An urgent bug is reported.

With a DCVS I can easily, get back to the version with the bug. Fix it. Send the fix. Get back to my feature work. And even, use the fix for the new version with my new feature.

In a not decentralized version system, doing such a thing is possible but not natural. Decentralization means it become natural to use a branch for each separable work.

Advantages given by DCVS:

  • Ability to work offline,
  • Ability to create many atomic patches,
  • Help the maintenance of many different versions of the same application.

To resume

Let’s resume what we can easily do with DCVS:

Versions Systems

  • back in time,
  • list differences between versions,
  • name some versions to refer to them easily
  • show history of modifications


  • get others modifications,
  • send its modifications to others,
  • know who done what and when,
  • conflicts management.


  • Easily manipulate branches

Now let’s see how to obtain all these things easily with Git.

Before usage, configuration


Under Linux Ubuntu or Debian:

Under Mac OS X:

Global configuration

Save the following file as your ~/.gitconfig.

    branch = auto
    diff   = auto
    status = auto
    st        = status
    co        = checkout
    br        = branch
    lg        = log --pretty=oneline --graph
    logfull   = log --pretty=fuller --graph --stat -p
    unstage   = reset HEAD
    # there should be an article on what this command do
    uncommit = !zsh -c '"if (($0)); then nb=$(( $0 - 1 )); else nb=0; fi; i=0; while ((i<=nb)); do git revert -n --no-edit HEAD~$i; ((i++)); done; git commit -m \"revert to $0 version(s) back\""'
    undomerge = reset --hard ORIG_HEAD
	conflict  = !gitk --left-right HEAD...MERGE_HEAD
    # under Mac OS X, you should use gitx instead
	# conflict    = !gitx --left-right HEAD...MERGE_HEAD
	autosetupmerge = true

You can achieve the same result using for each entry the command: git config --global. Next, configure your name and your email. For example, if your name is John Doe and your email is [email protected]. Launch the following commands:

Here it is. Base configuration is over. The file containing alias will help to type shorter commands.

Get a project

If a project is already versionned with Git you should have an URL of the sources. Then use the following command:

If there is no git server but you’ve got an ssh access. Just replace the git://host by ssh://user@host. In order not to type your password each time, use:

Reply to question and do not enter a password. Then copy your keys to the distant server. This is not the safest way to do this. The safest being, using ssh-agent.

The easiest way if you have ssh-copy-id:

or manually

Now you don’t need to write your password to access the main.server.

Creating a new project

Suppose you already have a project with files. Then it is really easy to version it.

Let do a small remark. If you don’t want to version every file. Typically intermediate compilation file, swap files… Then you need to exclude them. Just before launching the git add . command. You need to create a .gitignore file in the root directory of your project. This file will contain all exclude pattern. For example:

Now, if you want to create a repository on a distant server, it must not be in bare mode. The repository will contain only versionning informations, but not the files of the project. To achieve that:

Others will be able to get your modifications.

Abstract of the second step

You now have a local directory on your computer. It is versionned and you can say it is, because there is a .git directory at the root (and the root only) of your project. This directory contain all necessary informations for Git to version your project.

Now you only need to know how to use it.

Here we go!

Here is one from many way to use Git. This method is sufficient to work on a project. Not there is many other workflows.

Basic usage

Work with Git immediately:

  • Get modification done by others git pull,
  • See details of these modifications git log,
  • Many times:
    • Make an atomic modification
    • Verify details of this modification: git status and git diff,
    • Add some file to be versionned if necessary:
      git add [file],
    • Save you modifications
      git commit -a -m "message",
    • Send your modifications to others: git push (redo a git pull if push return an error).

With these few commands you can use Git. Even if it is sufficient, you need to know one more thing before really begin ; How to manage conflicts.

Conflicts management

Conflicts can arise when you change the same line of code on the same file from another branch you’re merging. It can seems a bit intimidating, but with Git this kind of thing is really simple to handle.


You start from the following file

and you modify one line

Zoot the pure

except during this time, another user had also modified the same line and had done a push.

Zoot, just Zoot

Now when you do a:

Our file foo now contains:

<<<<<<< HEAD:foo
Zoot the pure
Zoot, just Zoot
>>>>>>> 2dc7ffb0f186a407a1814d1a62684342cd54e7d6:foo

Conflict resolution

To resolve the conflict you only have to edit the file for example, writing:

Zoot the not so pure

and to commit

Now you’re ready to use Git. Git provide many other functionnalities. Now we’ll see some Git usages older CVS couldn’t handle.

Why Git is cool?

Because with Git you can work on many part of some project totally independently. This is the true efficiency of decentralisation.

Each branch use the same directory. Then you can easily change your branch. You can also change branch when some files are modified. You can then dispatch your work on many different branches and merge them on one master branch at will.

Using the git rebase you can decide which modifications should be forget or merged into only one modification.

What does it mean for real usage? You can focus on coding. For example, you can code, a fix for bug b01 and for bug b02 and code a feature f03. Once finished you can create a branch by bug and by feature. And finally you can merge these modifications on a main branch.

All was done to code and decide how to organize your versions after. In other VCS it is not as natural as in Git.

With Git you can depend of many different sources. Then, there is not necessarily a ‘master’ repository where everybody puts its modifications.

What changes the most with Git when you come from SVN, it’s the idea of a centralized project on one server. With Git many people could work on the same project but not necessarily on the same repository as main reference. One can easily fix a bug and send a patch to many different versions of a project.

Command List

Command for each functionality

In the first part, we saw the list of resolved problem by Git. To resume Git should do:

  • get others modifications,
  • send modifications to others,
  • get back in time,
  • list differences between each version,
  • name some versions in order to refer easily to them,
  • write an historic of modifications,
  • know who did what and when,
  • manage conflicts,
  • easily manage branches.

get others modifications

send modifications to others

or more generally

get back in time

For all tree

revert three version before (see my .gitconfig file).

Undo the las merge (if something goes wrong)

For one file

list differences between each version

list files being modified

differences between last version files and local files

differences between some version and local files

name some version to refer to them in the future

show historic of modifications

know who did what and when

handle conflicts

manage branches

To create a branch:

To change the current branch: