Git as debugging tool

19 minute read

Are you sure? Debugging with Git?

What are the tools that comes on your mind when someone say “debug”? Let me guess:

  • a memory leak detector (e.g. Valgrind);
  • a profiler (e.g. GNU gprof);
  • a function that stops your program and gives you a REPL (e.g. Python’s breakpoint and Ruby’s byebug);
  • something that we call a “debugger” (like GDB, or something similar embedded on the IDEs);
  • or even our old friend, the print function.

So, in this text I’ll try to convince you to add Git to your debug toolbelt.

When you are versioning some code with Git, the repository is a precious source of information. A lot of people only think of it as the command that they use to git add, git commit and finally git push their work the same way as they upload a file to Google Drive or post a photo on Instagram. However, as Git keeps the whole history of commits since the oldest one, it is perhaps the tool that knows the most of the code. Every version of every file is stored in the repository (in this text I’m referring the local repository as “repository”, not the GitHub, GitLab, Bitbucket, etc repository), and it’s a work of archaeology to find useful information in there.

So, I’ll show here some useful concepts and tools to extract everything you need from there!

Git basics recap

Before we go on, let’s first recap the Git basics.

Commits are the “versions” of a repository. They are snapshots, not deltas, that means that a commit doesn’t know what has changed. Instead, a commit stores the content of every file. When you run git show, you are not showing the content of a commit, you are showing a patch, the change in relation to its parent. That storage, however, is done in a clever way in order to save space.

Commits have references to their parent commits:

  • one parent in a normal commit;
  • two parents in a merge commit;
  • two or more parents in a octopus merge commit;
  • no parents if it’s a initial commit.

Commits also stores when and who created them!

Branches are only references to commits. In fact, a branch is only a file containing a hash of a commit.

The commit history is not a linear timeline! Actually, it is a DAG, a directed acyclic graph, in other words, it is set of different timelines that may have a common past between them (a fork point) and that may have a state where both timelines join (a merge commit), but without any loops!

The staging area, formerly called cache (still used sometimes…) and internally called index is the place where a commit is prepared (in other words, the place where you send you file when you git add it). The content of the staging area is the content of your last commit with the changes that you made and added using git add (the ones that are shown in green in git status).

The working directory is the directory where you files are in you disk. From the perspective of view of who is writing and running code, this may look as the main area of Git (compared to the commit history and the staging area). However, from the perspective of view of Git, this is the least important, as everything here can be modified, deleted, created and Git won’t track it, unless, of course, you explicitly tell Git to do that (using git add, for example).

If you didn’t know something from this section, I strongly recommend you to read the section 1.3 from the Pro Git book.

Pathspec and git ls-files

So, let’s go to our first concept here: the pathspec (as a non-native English speaker, I struggle to say that word…). A Pathspec is a string that can be passed as argument to several Git commands to specify files.

A nice way to see the pathspecs in action is using git ls-files. That command lists all the files in the staging area, but if you pass a pathspec as an argument for it, it will list all the files in the staging area that matches the pathspec.

The most trivial pathspec is the path of a file. If you have a file called, then will be a pathspec that represent it, and if it is inside a directory called src, a pathspec for it is src/ Note that, by default, pathspecs are relative to the current directory.


The first superpower of the pathspec that I’ll show you is *. That character matches any characters. For example, this command lists every file that ends in .c in the staging area that are in the current directory or in its subdirectories, recursively:

git ls-files '*.c'

You may be thinking: “nothing new here, it is just a shell star expansion”. Well, no. Note that '*.c' is between quotation marks, this means that it’s a string, and the shell is not expanding it. Instead, Git is expanding it.

What’s the difference? Remember that I said “in the current directory or in its subdirectories”? This is the difference between the pathspec * and the shell *: in this situation, the shell * will only match files in the current directory, while the pathspec * will match files that are in the current directory or in a subdirectory of it. So, if we run:

git ls-files *.c

the shell will replace *.c by all the files that end in .c in the current directory, so git ls-files will only list them.

: + magic words

: is a special character in pathspecs, that is followed by a magic word. I’m not going to deep dive into it, but there are two cases of it that I find very useful.

The first one is :/. This means the root of the repository. So, if you are in a subdirectory and want to match something by its absolute path (that is, relative to the repository root), you need to use :/. For example, :/*.c will match all the files that end in .c in the repository, no matter where they are located.

The second one is :!. If we put a :! in the beginning of a pathspec, then the pathspec will match all the files that doesn’t match the rest pathspec. For example:

git ls-files ':!*.c'

That command will list all files in the staging area that don’t end in .c.

More about pathspecs and git ls-files

Pathspecs are really useful to select files to pass as arguments to Git. You can learn more about them on the Git glossary (man gitglossary), searching by “pathspec”.

git ls-files, that I used as an example for pathspecs, is also a good tool to find files in the repository. It can replace the command find, as it has a cleaner syntax than the latter.

Git Grep

git grep, as the name says, is a grep powered by Git.

So, what does it mean? Well, remember that I said the Git is perhaps the tool that knows the most about your code? git grep takes advantage of it to make a better grep!

The syntax of git grep is, basically, the following:

git grep [<flags>] [<pattern>] [<commit>] -- [<pathspec>]

You can use several flags of grep in git grep, for example, -E, -P or -i. The pathspec and the commit are optional. The -- is optional in most of the cases, however, it is recommended to use it to avoid ambiguities.

If you provide a commit, than Git Grep will search for the pattern on that commit. However, Git grep won’t search on other commits.

If you don’t provide the pathspec, it will search for a pattern on all files in the current directory or its subdirectories. It is really faster than GNU Grep or BSD Grep. You can see that in the following image, I’m searching #include on the Git source code using BSD Grep, GNU Grep and Git Grep:

Git grep vs BSD grep and GNU grep, on a Macbook Air M1

Nice, but what more Git grep can do? Well, take a look at the flags --heading and --break. --heading groups the output by the file where each line is, and --break only inserts a line break between the groups. This is very useful for searching, for example, the files that call a function or that use a constant.

Git grep with --heading and --break, searching for looks_like on every C file.

A very cool feature of Git Grep is the flag -W (or --show-function). When using it, Git grep will not only show the line that contains what you are searching, but it will also show the entire function where it is located. So, let’s check the same command the I’ve shown in the last picture, however, adding the flag -W ( git grep --heading --break -W 'looks_like' -- '*.c'):

Git grep with -W showing the entire function that contains looks_like

Git Grep is an amazing tool to find code. Ok, but you may be thinking “nice, but I can do something like that using the code navigation of my IDE, jumping to definitions and usages”. That is true for several cases. However, Git Grep is still very useful when you want to search only in certain files (using the pathspec as a restriction), when you want to search for a generic regex instead of a name of variable or function, when you want to search in another commit or when you just don’t want to open an IDE and want to search directly from the terminal. It’s not a tool that is replacing another, but a tool to complement the other.

Git Blame

If you ever used git blame, there’s a good chance that you are expecting me to say something about it and how it is wonderful. If it is the case, please, don’t skip this section because I have something very important to tell you.

If it’s not the case and you never heard or never used git blame, it is a tool that shows for every line who was the last person that changed that line, the commit where it was done, and the timestamp of it. Look at the following picture. I’m running git blame Main.hs, where Main.hs is a file that I wrote:

Git blame. The first column show the first characters of the hash of the last commit that changed the line, Main.hs is the file, Lucas Oshiro (also known as me) is the last person that changed those lines. You can also see the timestamp of the last change.

That’s cool, so, does this show evidences so I can curse the code of my colleague? Well, in most of cases, yes, however, remember: git blame shows only who made the last change. Maybe that person only changed the name of a variable, applied a codestyle change, moved a function declaration to another file or many other things that the change was almost irrelevant to the code behavior. Many times the person doesn’t even know what the code does (for example, that person only ran a tool that formats code, without even reading it).

This also applies to the other information: the timestamp that is shown is only the last time that the line was changed, and it doesn’t tell us when it was created. Same for the commit: the commit that is shown is the last commit that changed something on that line, not that last commit that changed something useful or the commit that introduced that line.

Git Blame (and tools based on it, like Annotate on JetBrains IDEs, magit-blame on Emacs or GitLens on VSCode) is of course very useful, however, it is not the source of the truth. If you need to find something more than know about the last change of a line, then you’ll need something more powerful…

Git Log and its hidden powers

git log is one of the most famous commands of Git. It is the command that you run to look the commit history, nothing new here. However, it has some lesser known features that I consider the next step when Git Blame is not enough for your needs.

Passing a pathspec as an argument to Git log

You can restrict the git log output by passing a pathspec as the last argument, like this: git log -- <pathspec>. Again, the -- can be omitted in most of the cases, however, it is good practice to keep it to avoid ambiguities.

When you do that, the output will contain only the commits that introduced a change to the files that match the pathspec in relation to their parents commits. Look at this example:

Commit history of a file.

If you want to know when something was introduced, you can inspect those commits. When you find it, you will know who and when introduced the commit. If the commit message is well-written and if the change was atomic, you can even know why the commit was created (and why its code exists). If you are using GitHub, you can also copy the hash of that commit and search the PR that contained it, and its even more information, given that you can read the discussion and the code review!

This feature of Git Log saved my life several times. If I found a piece of code that was hard to understand its purpose, instead of only trying to read it, I used Git Log to find the commit that introduced and check what the person that wrote it was trying to do, what was the context of its creation, what was the problem it was aiming to solve, and so on. Just try it!

The -p flag

So, it may be boring to inspect every commit manually. You can use -p to show the patch of every commit. In other words, it is like running git show for every commit in the log.

The same as the last picture, but using the -p flag

The -S flag

The -S flag is a hidden gem in Git log. With it, you can see all the commits that increased or decreased the number of occurrences of a string. This works almost as Git Blame killer for me: even if someone moved a piece of code to another place or another file, git log -S will find the introduction of it.

In the following picture, I’m using git log -S to find the first introduction of a string contained in the file hardcoded_values.h (as you can see in the output of the first git grep). Then, note that the introduction of that string wasn’t in that file (as you can see in the output of the second git grep). Firstly, it was part of state_machine.c, then it was moved into the other file. This solves the problem of Git Blame blaming the person that moved the line, instead of the one that created it.

Sorry, Git Blame...

You can also use -G instead of -S. This allows you to use a regular expression instead of string.

Git Bisect

git blame tell us the last change of a line and git log -S tell us when a when string was introduced or removed. However, they only work over text. For many cases this is enough, however, sometimes you don’t want to look for changes in a text, but you want to look for changes in the behavior of the program, like bugs or anything that is not working as expected.

In those cases, git blame or git log -S won’t be enough, because you don’t know what code caused that change of behavior, and you don’t know exactly what to search. In complex projects, maybe that change is in a place that you would never expect, for example, a class or function that you thought it wasn’t related to the one that is broken.

And how can Git can help us to find that change?

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a honour to present you my favorite Git command: Git Bisect! It allows us to find the commit that broke something. Given a “good” commit (a commit that is not broken, created before the introduction of the bug), and a “bad” commit (a commit that certainly is broken), Git will perform a binary search until the broken commit is found.

After bisecting, you can take a look at the commit that created the bug, and find all the information that we discussed previously.

Git Bisect can be used in two ways: a manual one, where it guides you until you find the commit that introduced the bug, and an automatic one, where Git find that commit for you.

A practical exercise

I’ll demonstrate Git Bisect using this repository: It is very simple, it contains only one Python script, with a really weird and hard to understand code:

#!/usr/bin/env python3

from sys import argv
from math import log

ops = 0x2B2D2F2C2A5E3E5F

def func(a, b):
    return '\n'.join(
        (lambda r: f'{a} {f} {b} = {r}')(eval(f'{a}{f}{b}'))
        for f in ops.to_bytes((int(log(ops, 16)) + 1) // 2, 'big').decode())

if __name__ == '__main__':
    a, b = map(int, argv[1:])
    print(func(a, b))

And what does it do? Well, it takes two numbers as arguments, and it performs some operations using them: running

This works for mostly any numbers, except if the second one is 0. As one operation is division and we’re not handling division by zero error, this input breaks the script:

Oh no

As you can see, we know where the code is breaking, however, we can’t see a division in there. If we want to fix this code, we need to find what causes that division, and it’s not clear here.

Of course we can use git log here and try to find a commit that may inserted the bug. However, even running git log -p -- can’t help us, look:

Nothing useful here. The commit messages says nothing about the code (they are name of fruits in Portuguese...) and the only change between one commit and another is a hex value.

Git Bisect to the rescue!

Running Git Bisect manually

The first thing that you need to do is to start to bisect. You do this by running git bisect start. If you run git status, it will tell you that you are bisecting. Some shells that shows Git info on the prompt also shows tells you that you are bisecting. If you are done with bisecting, then you should run git bisect reset to end the bisection.

Bisect start

I said that in order to bisect you need a “bad commit” and a “good commit”. In this case, we know that the last commit is a bad one, as it breaks when providing 0 as the second parameter.

In a real scenario, you’ll probably would know what is a “good commit”, it is any commit that you know that contains a code that works, for example, a commit of the last release that is not broken. In this case, I’m telling you that the initial commit is not buggy. Just checkout to it and try to run passing 0 as the second argument:

It does nothing, however, at least it is not diving by zero

So, now we know the bad and the good commit, our current situation is that (the first one is the first commit):

8959689 InĂ­cio     <- GOOD!
f1a445e banana
e516236 goiaba
0acc414 Laranja
18c911e Toranja
0f3d5c7 LimĂŁo
7e27a60 Framboesa
f16e5e7 Morango
c3eb7db Carambola  <- BAD!

And we need to tell Git Bisect about it. We run git bisect good 8959689 to tell it that the initial commit is the good one. As the current commit is a bad one, we can just run git bisect bad to tell it, but you could also run git bisect bad c3eb7db or any other commit that you know that is bad.

After running that, Git Bisect will automatically checkout to the commit in the middle of the history between the good and the bad commits, that is, 18c911e (Toranja). Now, we run ./ <something> 0 to find if this commit is a good or a bad one.

Turns out that this commit is a bad one...

Ok, now our situation is that:

8959689 InĂ­cio     <- GOOD!
f1a445e banana
e516236 goiaba
0acc414 Laranja
18c911e Toranja    <- BAD!
0f3d5c7 LimĂŁo
7e27a60 Framboesa
f16e5e7 Morango
c3eb7db Carambola  <- BAD!

And we need tell Git Bisect that this commit is a bad one. So, we run git bisect bad. As you might suspect, now Git Bisect will checkout to the commit in the middle between 8959689 (InĂ­cio) and 18c911e (Toranja). That commit is e516236 (goiaba).

Ok, now we do the same thing: run ./ <something> 0, check whether it breaks or not, if so run git bisect bad, otherwise run git bisect good, until it ends the binary search and finds the buggy commit. We’re doing it here:

Running git bisect bad and git bisect good until the end of the binary search

Then we found the commit that introduced the bug: 0acc414 (Laranja). Now you exit bisecting with git bisect reset, then it will checkout to the same commit where you were when you ran git bisect start. If you are curious about why that change breaks the code, here’s a clue: 0x2F is the hex value of the ASCII number for /.

Git Bisect is cool, but running it manually like this (checking if the commit is a good or a bad one and running git bisect bad or git bisect good) can be very boring. Depending on the situation, you can do that automatically using git bisect run!

Running Git Bisect automatically

If there is a command that can tell you if the commit is good or bad, then Git Bisect can perform the binary search automatically! That command can be anything, like a shellscript, a Python script, an executable, a test, and so on. The only requirement about it is its status code:

  • If the commit is good, then the command should return 0;
  • If the commit is bad, then the command should return anything between 1 and 127, inclusive, except 125;
  • If it is not possible to tell if this commit is good or bad, then it need to be ignored, and the command should return 125.

In this example, we are checking if the code raises an exception. By default, when a code exits with an exception in Python, its status code is 1, and it is 0 when everything is ok. Then, just running ./ <someting> 0 is enough, as it will return 0 when it is ok and 1 when the bug happens. However, keep in mind that is not always the case, and maybe you’ll need to write a test script.

We start the bisect just like before:

git bisect start
git bisect good <hash of the good commit>
git bisect bad

However, as we want to do perform the bisection automatically using as criterion ./ 14 0, we run git bisect run ./ 14 0. It works like magic:

Yes, my friends: this is command that finds the bug for you!

After this, you also need to run git bisect reset to end bisection. That’s it. Isn’t it cool?


These commands helped a lot when I needed to navigate on large codebases and find the causes of a bug. But not only that, they can help you to understand the code, as they are, essentially, search tools. Simple and flexible, but incredibly powerful.

Thanks for reading, if you find something wrong, or if you want to suggest something, open a issue on my GitHub.