As I’ve been working in git and crafting my commits with rebase working toward creating pull requests which are easy to read, review, and comment, I’ve been noticing myself fall into habits of naming commit messages similarly which contain code to acheive similar ends. Further, when I struggle to find the correct words for a commit message, it’s often easier to being with a familiar word to get things flowing.

{% img right /images/readthesource.jpg 460 276 Read the source %} Over the past few months, I’ve also had the pleasure of working with some great developers. As such, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to review a lot of their code. If there is one thing I recommend to all developers, from novice to expert, it’s read code. Your own, your friend’s, strangers, projects you admire, anything you can get your hands on. Not only will it enlighten you to how others write code, new coding patterns and syntax, but it will empower you to be able to figure out how the code you use works and how to fix it.

As a quick aside, I was able recently to dig into the Ruby source code, even into the C, to discover exaclty what was happening with Range bracket operator access on an empty Array. It felt great to be able to see how Ruby herself was implemented and know exactly why my code worked; to go beyond “well, it worked in irb so it must be correct.”

The great thing about reviewing pull requests is that I am able to open discussions with the authors and inquire as to why they made certain decisions and what their motiviations were for writing certain code. Also, it gave me a chance to see code which was not polished and final. Thereby, recognizing anti-patterns and less than best practices.

Coming back to the topic of this post. These anti-patterns and less than best- practices extend to commit messages as well. Below I’ve listed some of the dos and don’ts which I have started to use in my everyday committing.

What I like

These words I often use to start commit messages which make some common changes in the codebase.


Ensure phone numbers strip extraneous characters

Ensure deactivation resets users' api tokens

I use “Ensure” to start a commit which contains tests for my code. These commits are often the first commits in a pull request, especially if I am using TDD. A whole commit just for test? Surely, that’s overkill? There are two reasons I like to encapsulate tests into their own commits.

{% img left /images/ensure.jpg Ensure %} First, this standardization allows others to know which commits will define and test the behavior I aim to implement. We all know that tests can be a great documentation tool and prefixing commit messages which contain “Ensure” allow people to find them easier.

Second, if the tests are in their own commit(s) before the implementation commits, it’s very easy for a reviewer to simulate the red-green test cycle. Either through a checkout or selecting a commit to be ‘editied’ in an interactive rebase, the state of the repo after the tests are written, but before the task is implemented can be recreated. Tests are run at that point and a reviewer can cofirm that the new tests do indeed fail. The rebase is continued and the tests can be run again. This time they succeed. A review has very simply been able to confirm that the tests are working correctly.


Boyscout the user model specs

Boyscout line lengths in the sessions controller

Boyscouting refers to updating the format and/or style of code without changing the behavior. I picked it up from a presentation about code styles which I now cannot find to reference here. However, I did find this written reference online. The term refers to a famous quote by the founder of the Boyscouts, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it”.

Continuing to think of the reviewer when committing, just by looking at the message, expectations are set that this commit does not change functionality, only formatting. Review of a change like that is much easier when you know that nothing is supposed to happen.


Migrate a unique index for user email addresses

Migrate timestamp columns onto the comments table

As you might have guessed, I use “Migrate” to start commit messages which contain migrations. As a best practice, we like to isolate migrations to their own commits containing only the migration class definition and the changes to the schema file. It also can be useful, but not 100% reliable, to quickly see if a particular set of commits has migrations; say before a deploy or after pulling down the latest changes. Again, along the theme of setting expectations for others.

What I avoid

These words often start a commit message off on the wrong foot. Being very generic on their own, they often lead to very generic commit messages.


Fixed broken specs

Fixed editing a user

{% img right /images/fixedit.jpg FIXED!!! %} First off, past tense should be avoided in commit messages. The rule of thumb is to write a commit message as if you were commanding the code to take an action. Secondly, commit messages should describe the reason for a change, not the change itself. If someone would like a know what the changes were, they need to do no more that a git show or click in github. However, to reason why the change was made or what it is attempting to do is much harder to determine from the code itself. Great commit messages can be the difference between Fixed broken specs and Activate users after registration in user specs.


Added new Order model

Added full_name method to User model

“Added” is not strictly a not so best practice, but I see it go awry more often than I see it used for good. Again, “added” has a great tendnecy to lean toward what happened instead of why did it happen. I, myself, sometimes write a commit starting with “added”. For example, Added jquery javascript library at first glance seems perfectly reasonable. I didn’t fix anything. I didn’t write a great new feature. I just added jQuery. However, when I find myself with a commit message like this, I go through the practice of adding “in order to” and then trying to finish the commit message. Added jquery javascript library in order to provide DOM manipulation methods. Put it together for Provide DOM manipulation methods with jQuery. Now, I’ve given some context to why I added jQuery instead of simply restating the code changes in the commit message.

That’s all I have for now. Please comment below with your commit message best practices and tendencies. I bet you guys have some great tips too!

See ya soon and keep committing!



Christopher R Marshall


Enjoys programming web applications; especially in Ruby and Go. Also enjoys playing ice hockey as a goalie and playing the guitar.