I used to find it super hard to read git syntax. I didn’t know what what --, <>, [], ..., |, (), etc meant. Turns out, it’s a whole lot easier than you think.

The synopsis contains a list of most likely forms you’d try. But sometimes the synopsis is just one big long synopsis where all the options are thrown in at once. This can make it hard to understand the different ways of using the options and commands.

Syntax Guide:

  • [ ] makes things optional.
  • < > are just placeholders.
  • ... just means one or more.
  • | means: OR
  • ( ) just groups things together for easier readings.
  • -b, -d, --oneline, --add and so on are known as options

Beyond that, if you scroll down, you’d see each page usually (but not always) has the following sections, structure.


  • Name
  • Description
  • Options:
  • Commands
  • Examples
  • Notes
  • See Also

Within the Options sections, the placeholders are better described. Example: the following placeholders are extracted from git checkout page:

git checkout placeholders
git checkout placeholders. These are within the Options sections.

With this knowledge let’s go through some examples:

First Example

git branch (-d | -D) [-r] <branchname>…​

Translates to:

  • git branch
  • either -d or -D
  • optional -r
  • one or more branch names

Meaning, all of the following are accepted:

git branch -d branchA
git branch -d branchA branchB branchX
git branch -d -r branchA branchP

While the following aren’t accepted:

git branch -d -D branch # can't provide both -d -D together
git branch -d # must provide at least one branch name

Second Example:

git remote set-branches [--add] <name> <branch>…​

Translates to:

  • git remote set-branches
  • optional --add
  • must include name (of the repo)
  • one or more branch names

Meaning, all of the following are accepted:

git remote set-branches --add origin branchA
git remote set-branches origin branchA
git remote set-branches origin branchA branchB
git remote set-branches --add origin branchA branchB <a lot more branches> branchX

While the following aren’t accepted:

git remote set-branches --add origin upstream branchA # you can't do multiple repos. Only multiple branches
git remote set-branches --add origin # you must specify a branch name

Now you might be asking what does <name> refer to. The answer is, you have to go into the command’s page and see the description of the command you’re using. E.g. the description of: set-branch can be found from here

Changes the list of branches tracked by the named remote. This can be used to track a subset of the available remote branches after the initial setup for a remote. The named branches will be interpreted as if specified with the -t option on the git remote add command line. With --add, instead of replacing the list of currently tracked branches, adds to that list.

Third Example:

git diff [<options>] [<commit>] [--] [<path>…​]

Translates to:

  • git diff
  • Any number of options. This is an odd one, because it’s not marked with ..., but the placeholder itself conveys that there can be multiple options. Typically options can be multiple.
  • a commit (SHA)
  • -- is just a separator added at the end of options. You don’t need need it unless git needs it to disambiguate your command.
  • zero or more paths.

Meaning, all of the following are accepted:

git diff . # diff on the current directory
git --name-only 97c8fa32a some/directory # shows the file name of every thing changed (from only inside some/directory) between the current index and the `97c8fa32a` commit 

Forth Example

git diff [<options>] <commit>…​<commit> [--] [<path>…​]

So now you saw this and didn’t know what <commit>…​<commit> means. It’s easier to figure out, because we know what the other parts of this form mean. All we have to do is, search for it within the docs of git diff. If we do see we find:

This form is to view the changes on the branch containing and up to the second <commit>, starting at a common ancestor of both <commit>. [skipping some parts of doc] .You can omit any one of , which has the same effect as using HEAD instead.

Meaning the following is allowed:

git diff --name-only 5a189bf...e48224a
git diff --name-only 5a189bf...e48224a -- some/directory
git diff --name-only 5a189bf...e48224a -- some/directory1 some/directory2

💡💡💡 Surprisingly the followings are also allowed:

git diff --name-only 887bbeab6... 
git diff --name-only 887bbeab6...branch32A

The 👆 are allowed, because both a tag and branch point to a specific commit, so they both satisfy as a <commit>.

Other notes:

  • To familiarize yourself more with jargon used in the pages. See git glossary 📖.

  • Understanding what the placeholder is about is key. Take your time and search on the doc page (or on the internet) for it. Common placeholders are:

    • <path>
    • <pathspec>
    • <branch>
    • <repo-name>
    • <tree-ish>
    • <commit>
  • Options and commands are different.

    • Options are prefixed with - or --.
    • Comamnds don’t have any - or -- before them. git add, git log, git diff, git remote, etc are all different commands.
    • Some commands have sub-commands e.g. git remote has different commands:
      • git remote add
      • git remote remove
      • git remote rename
  • Every git command has various options. If you don’t set them, then git will fallback to its defaults. A lot of times the current commit, branch, directory get used if you dont' specify antything.

  • The position of ... is important. Example: <branch>... is different from [<branch>...]

    • <branch>... means one or more branches.
    • [<branch>...] means optionally 1 or more branches. i.e. zero or more branches.
  • The git doc pages are not identically structured. If you can’t understand the docs, it’s not your fault. It’s because the documentation is written by lots of different people.

Also see:

How do I read git synopsis documentation?