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7. Staging and Committing Changes

Git’s primary function is version control, or to track a project as it exists at particular points in time. Now that we have a file to track—our—let’s use Git to save the current state of the repository as it exists now.

A Metaphor for Adding and Committing

In Git, a commit is a snapshot of a repository that is entered into its permanent history. To commit a change to a repository, we take two steps:

  1. Adding files to a “staging area,” meaning that we intend to commit them.
  2. Finalizing the commit.

Staging a file or files is you telling Git, “Hey! Pay attention these files and the changes in them”.

Making a commit is a lot like taking a photo. First, you have to decide who will be in the photo and arrange your friends or family in front of the camera (the staging process). Once everyone is present and ready, you take the picture, entering that moment into the permanent record (the commit process).

Why do you need both steps? Sometimes when you’re working on a project you don’t want to pay attention to all the files you changed. Perhaps you fixed a bug in some code, but also did some work on your manuscript document. You may want to only commit the changes you made to the code because you still haven’t finished your thoughts on the manuscript. You can stage, or add, the code file so Git knows to only commit the changes made to that file. Later, you can stage and then commit the manuscript changes on their own once you’ve finished your thought.

Staging Changes with the add Command

First, let’s see what state Git is currently in. We do that with the git status command. It’s a good idea to use this command before and after doing anything in a Git repository so you can always be on the same page as the computer.

Make sure you’re in your /home/<your-name>/Desktop/projects/git-practice directory using the pwd command in the terminal. Once you’re there, enter git status and you should see the following output:

$ git status
On branch main

No commits yet

Untracked files:
  (use "git add <file>..." to include in what will be committed)

nothing added to commit but untracked files present (use "git add" to track)

“Nothing added to commit” means that we have initialized our repository, but haven’t made any commits yet. If you’re instead getting a message that begins with the word fatal when you use git status, you may be in the wrong directory or perhaps you haven’t run the git init command on your directory yet.

Let’s follow the recommendation in the status message above and use the add command to stage files, making them ready to be committed.

We will go ahead and add by writing the following in the terminal:

$ git add

You should see no output from the command line, which should be interpreted as a the above command succeeded. It is what we call “succeeding silently.” Let’s run git status again to have a “sanity check”—to make sure that things have changed. You should see output like this:

$ git status
On branch main

No commits yet

Changes to be committed:
  (use "git rm --cached <file>..." to unstage)

    new file:

The new file: should be highlighted in green to show that it’s ready for commit.

This is Git telling you, “Ok, I see the file(s) you’re talking about.”

Committing Changes

Now that our files have been staged, let’s commit them, making them part of the permanent record of the repository. In the terminal, type:

$ git commit -m "Initial commit of syllabus file"

The -m flag provides that the message following the flag (in quotation marks) along with the commit. The message will tell others—or remind a future version of yourself—what the commit was all about. Try not to type git commit without the -m flag—there’s a note about this below.

After running the command, you should see output like this:

[main (root-commit) 8bb8306] Initial commit of syllabus file
  1 file changed, 0 insertions(+), 0 deletions(-)
  create mode 100644

This means you have successfully made your first commit in the repository—congratulations! There are a few things going on in this message. The relevant information for you for now is the second line, which tells you that one file was changed, and there were no insertions or deletions. You have a fresh new file!

Let’s check the state of our repository after the commit by running git status:

$ git status
On branch main
nothing to commit, working tree clean

This means that everything in the repository is successfully committed and up-to-date. If you edit your syllabus file or create a new file in the repository, the message you get with git status will instead list files that have uncommitted changes.

Let’s run one other command to see the effect our commit has had. Enter this command:

$ git log

You should see output similar to this:

commit 8bb8306c1392eed52d4407eb16867a49b49a46ac (HEAD -> main)
Author: Your Name <>
Date:   Sun May 20 16:03:39 2018 -0400

    Initial commit of syllabus file

This is the log of commits, comprising a history of your repository. There’s only one commit here now, though. If you don’t see a prompt (the $) after running git log, you may need to press the q key (just the q key by itself) to return to the command line.

Why Do We Need to Use the -m Flag?

The -m flag is useful for human purposes and technical purposes. For human purposes, the -m flag helps you keep track of the changes you’re making. Version control is most useful when you can confidently return to a specific version. It can also help you be more structured in your approach to making changes—your notes to self are limited, so to make them clear, you might make commits after specific tasks are completed. If you update readings for the first week of classes or if you add another reading, you will want to make a commit. This can also make it easier to reverse a specific change in the future.

Also, if you type git commit by itself, git will open the command line’s default text editor to allow you to enter the commit message in a file-like environment. It looks something like this:

Example of what the vi screen looks like

This unfamiliar screen is the default text editor, vi, and it requires some knowledge to use. We don’t teach it as part of our sessions, but if you find yourself stuck in this screen, you can try this trick to leave that environment and return to your usual command prompt. Type :q and then press enter. You should be back to the command line with a message saying:

Aborting commit due to empty commit message.

If you make a mistake where you include an opening quotation mark but forget a closing one, you might accidentally end up inside a “quote prompt.” You will know you’re there when your command prompt changes to quote>. If this happens, you can just keep writing as much of your commit message as you want, and then end it with the same quotation mark that you opened the commit message with.

Another option is to press control + c on your keyboard, which will exit the quote prompt and cancel any commits you were trying to perform.

Pro-tip for the Command Line: How to exit unknown screens

If you’re ever stuck or “trapped” on the command line, try running through these common exit commands to return to the prompt:

  • control + c
  • control + d
  • q followed by enter
  • :q followed by enter

control + c attempts to abort the current task and restore user control. control + d escapes the current shell environment—if you use it at the normal $ prompt, it will end the current command line session. q is often used as a command (followed by enter) to escape from specific programs like less. :q is the command used in vi that changes the mode of interaction (:), allowing you to enter the q, a one-letter command to quit, which must be followed by enter. Thus, it’s a command specific to vi.

Challenges for lesson 7


Try again!

Which best describe the process of staging:

(Select one of the following)

Try again!

Which best describes the process of committing:

(Select all that apply)

Try again!

What happens if you stage the files, but don't commit them?

(Select all that apply)

Try again!

What happens if you commit the files, but don't stage them?

(Select all that apply)

Try again!

Which best describes the -m flag used when committing changes to a file?

(Select all that apply)

Terms Used in Lesson

Can you define the terms below? Hover over each of them to read a preview of the definitions.


When you commit your changes using Git, you are created a version a file that can be referenced even after further changes to the file are made and committed. Making a commit involves 2 steps. …

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