Julia Evans

How HEAD works in git

Hello! The other day I ran a Mastodon poll asking people how confident they were that they understood how HEAD works in Git. The results (out of 1700 votes) were a little surprising to me:

  • 10% “100%”
  • 36% “pretty confident”
  • 39% “somewhat confident?”
  • 15% “literally no idea”

I was surprised that people were so unconfident about their understanding – I’d been thinking of HEAD as a pretty straightforward topic.

Usually when people say that a topic is confusing when I think it’s not, the reason is that there’s actually some hidden complexity that I wasn’t considering. And after some follow up conversations, it turned out that HEAD actually was a bit more complicated than I’d appreciated!

Here’s a quick table of contents:

HEAD is actually a few different things

After talking to a bunch of different people about HEAD, I realized that HEAD actually has a few different closely related meanings:

  1. The file .git/HEAD
  2. HEAD as in git show HEAD (git calls this a “revision parameter”)
  3. All of the ways git uses HEAD in the output of various commands (<<<<<<<<<<HEAD, (HEAD -> main), detached HEAD state, On branch main, etc)

These are extremely closely related to each other, but I don’t think the relationship is totally obvious to folks who are starting out with git.

the file .git/HEAD

Git has a very important file called .git/HEAD. The way this file works is that it contains either:

  1. The name of a branch (like ref: refs/heads/main)
  2. A commit ID (like 96fa6899ea34697257e84865fefc56beb42d6390)

This file is what determines what your “current branch” is in Git. For example, when you run git status and see this:

$ git status
On branch main

it means that the file .git/HEAD contains ref: refs/heads/main.

If .git/HEAD contains a commit ID instead of a branch, git calls that “detached HEAD state”. We’ll get to that later.

(People will sometimes say that HEAD contains a name of a reference or a commit ID, but I’m pretty sure that that the reference has to be a branch. You can technically make .git/HEAD contain the name of a reference that isn’t a branch by manually editing .git/HEAD, but I don’t think you can do it with a regular git command. I’d be interested to know if there is a regular-git-command way to make .git/HEAD a non-branch reference though, and if so why you might want to do that!)

HEAD as in git show HEAD

It’s very common to use HEAD in git commands to refer to a commit ID, like:

  • git diff HEAD
  • git rebase -i HEAD^^^^
  • git diff main..HEAD
  • git reset --hard HEAD@{2}

All of these things (HEAD, HEAD^^^, HEAD@{2}) are called “revision parameters”. They’re documented in man gitrevisions, and Git will try to resolve them to a commit ID.

(I’ve honestly never actually heard the term “revision parameter” before, but that’s the term that’ll get you to the documentation for this concept)

HEAD in git show HEAD has a pretty simple meaning: it resolves to the current commit you have checked out! Git resolves HEAD in one of two ways:

  1. if .git/HEAD contains a branch name, it’ll be the latest commit on that branch (for example by reading it from .git/refs/heads/main)
  2. if .git/HEAD contains a commit ID, it’ll be that commit ID

next: all the output formats

Now we’ve talked about the file .git/HEAD, and the “revision parameter” HEAD, like in git show HEAD. We’re left with all of the various ways git uses HEAD in its output.

git status: “on branch main” or “HEAD detached”

When you run git status, the first line will always look like one of these two:

  1. on branch main. This means that .git/HEAD contains a branch.
  2. HEAD detached at 90c81c72. This means that .git/HEAD contains a commit ID.

I promised earlier I’d explain what “HEAD detached” means, so let’s do that now.

detached HEAD state

“HEAD is detached” or “detached HEAD state” mean that you have no current branch.

Having no current branch is a little dangerous because if you make new commits, those commits won’t be attached to any branch – they’ll be orphaned! Orphaned commits are a problem for 2 reasons:

  1. the commits are more difficult to find (you can’t run git log somebranch to find them)
  2. orphaned commits will eventually be deleted by git’s garbage collection

Personally I’m very careful about avoiding creating commits in detached HEAD state, though some people prefer to work that way. Getting out of detached HEAD state is pretty easy though, you can either:

  1. Go back to a branch (git checkout main)
  2. Create a new branch at that commit (git checkout -b newbranch)
  3. If you’re in detached HEAD state because you’re in the middle of a rebase, finish or abort the rebase (git rebase --abort)

Okay, back to other git commands which have HEAD in their output!

git log: (HEAD -> main)

When you run git log and look at the first line, you might see one of the following 3 things:

  1. commit 96fa6899ea (HEAD -> main)
  2. commit 96fa6899ea (HEAD, main)
  3. commit 96fa6899ea (HEAD)

It’s not totally obvious how to interpret these, so here’s the deal:

  • inside the (...), git lists every reference that points at that commit, for example (HEAD -> main, origin/main, origin/HEAD) means HEAD, main, origin/main, and origin/HEAD all point at that commit (either directly or indirectly)
  • HEAD -> main means that your current branch is main
  • If that line says HEAD, instead of HEAD ->, it means you’re in detached HEAD state (you have no current branch)

if we use these rules to explain the 3 examples above: the result is:

  1. commit 96fa6899ea (HEAD -> main) means:
    • .git/HEAD contains ref: refs/heads/main
    • .git/refs/heads/main contains 96fa6899ea
  2. commit 96fa6899ea (HEAD, main) means:
    • .git/HEAD contains 96fa6899ea (HEAD is “detached”)
    • .git/refs/heads/main also contains 96fa6899ea
  3. commit 96fa6899ea (HEAD) means:
    • .git/HEAD contains 96fa6899ea (HEAD is “detached”)
    • .git/refs/heads/main either contains a different commit ID or doesn’t exist

merge conflicts: <<<<<<< HEAD is just confusing

When you’re resolving a merge conflict, you might see something like this:

<<<<<<< HEAD
def parse(input):
    return input.split("\n")
def parse(text):
    return text.split("\n\n")
>>>>>>> somebranch

I find HEAD in this context extremely confusing and I basically just ignore it. Here’s why.

  • When you do a merge, HEAD in the merge conflict is the same as what HEAD was when you ran git merge. Simple.
  • When you do a rebase, HEAD in the merge conflict is something totally different: it’s the other commit that you’re rebasing on top of. So it’s totally different from what HEAD was when you ran git rebase. It’s like this because rebase works by first checking out the other commit and then repeatedly cherry-picking commits on top of it.

Similarly, the meaning of “ours” and “theirs” are flipped in a merge and rebase.

The fact that the meaning of HEAD changes depending on whether I’m doing a rebase or merge is really just too confusing for me and I find it much simpler to just ignore HEAD entirely and use another method to figure out which part of the code is which.

some thoughts on consistent terminology

I think HEAD would be more intuitive if git’s terminology around HEAD were a little more internally consistent.

For example, git talks about “detached HEAD state”, but never about “attached HEAD state” – git’s documentation never uses the term “attached” at all to refer to HEAD. And git talks about being “on” a branch, but never “not on” a branch.

So it’s very hard to guess that on branch main is actually the opposite of HEAD detached. How is the user supposed to guess that HEAD detached has anything to do with branches at all, or that “on branch main” has anything to do with HEAD?

that’s all!

If I think of other ways HEAD is used in Git (especially ways HEAD appears in Git’s output), I might add them to this post later.

If you find HEAD confusing, I hope this helps a bit!

Popular git config options The "current branch" in git