22 Branches

Branching means that you take a detour from the main stream of development and do work without changing the main stream. It allows one or many people to work in parallel without overwriting each other’s work. It allows a someone working solo to work incrementally on an experimental idea, without jeopardizing the state of the main product.

Branching in Git is very lightweight, which means creating a branch and switching between branches is nearly instantaneous. This means Git encourages workflows which create small branches for exploration or new features, often merging them back together quickly.

22.1 Create a new branch

You can create a new branch with git branch, then checkout the branch with git checkout. To distinguish it from the main stream of development, presumably on main, we’ll call this a “feature branch”.

git branch issue-5
git checkout issue-5

You can also use the shortcut git checkout -b issue-5 to create and checkout the branch all at once.

Once you have switched to a branch, you can commit to it as usual.

22.2 Switching branches

You use git checkout to switch between branches.

But what do you do if you are working on a branch and need to switch, but the work on the current branch is not complete? One option is the Git stash, but generally a better option is to safeguard the current state with a temporary commit. Here I use “WIP” as the commit message to indicate work in progress.

git commit --all -m "WIP"
git checkout main

Then when you come back to the branch and continue your work, you need to undo the temporary commit by resetting your state. Specifically, we want a mixed reset. This is “working directory safe”, i.e. it does not affect the state of any files. But it does peel off the temporary WIP commit. Below, the reference HEAD^ says to roll the commit state back to the parent of the current commit (HEAD).

git checkout issue-5
git reset HEAD^

If this is difficult to remember, or to roll the commit state back to a different previous state, the reference can also be given as the SHA of a specific commit, which you can see via git log. This is where I think a graphical Git client can be invaluable, as you can generally right click on the target commit, then select the desired type of reset (e.g., soft, mixed, or hard). This is exactly the type of intermediate-to-advanced Git usage that often feels more approachable in a graphical client.

22.3 Merging a branch

Once you have done your work and committed it to the feature branch, you can switch back to main and merge the feature branch.

git checkout main
git merge issue-5

22.4 Dealing with conflicts

Most of the time, the merge will go smoothly. However if both the branches you are merging changed the same part of the same file you will get a merge conflict.

git merge issue-5
# Auto-merging index.html
# CONFLICT (content): Merge conflict in index.html
# Automatic merge failed; fix conflicts and then commit the result.

The first thing to do is NOT PANIC. Merge conflicts are not the end of the world and most are relatively small and straightforward to resolve.

The first step to solving a merge conflict is determining which files are in conflict, which you can do with git status:

git status
# On branch main
# You have unmerged paths.
#   (fix conflicts and run "git commit")
# Unmerged paths:
#   (use "git add <file>..." to mark resolution)
#     both modified:      index.html
# no changes added to commit (use "git add" and/or "git commit -a")

So this shows only index.html is unmerged and needs to be resolved. We can then open the file to see what lines are in conflict.

<<<<<<< HEAD:index.html
<div id="footer">contact : email.support@github.com</div>
<div id="footer">
 please contact us at support@github.com
>>>>>>> issue-5:index.html

In this conflict, the lines between <<<<<< HEAD:index.html and ====== are the content from the branch you are currently on. The lines between ======= and >>>>>>> issue-5:index.html are from the feature branch we are merging.

To resolve the conflict, edit this section until it reflects the state you want in the merged result. Pick one version or the other or create a hybrid. Also remove the conflict markers <<<<<<, ====== and >>>>>>.

<div id="footer">
please contact us at email.support@github.com

Now run git add index.html and git commit to finalize the merge. CONFLICTS RESOLVED.

22.4.1 Bailing out

If, during the merge, you get confused about the state of things or make a mistake, use git merge --abort to abort the merge and go back to the state prior to running git merge. Then you can try to complete the merge again.

Git Basic Branching and Merging: