How to merge specific files from another branch?

Yashu Mittal

Problem statement

Part of your team is hard at work developing a new feature in another branch. They’ve been working on the branch for several days now, and they’ve been committing changes every hour or so. Something comes up, and you need to add some of the code from that branch back into your mainline development branch. (For this example, we’ll assume mainline development occurs in the master branch.) You’re not ready to merge the entire feature branch into master just yet. The code you need to grab is isolated to a handful of files, and those files don’t yet exist in the masterbranch.

Buckets o’ fail

This seems like it should be a simple enough task, so we start rummaging through our Git toolbox looking for just the right instrument.

Idea, the first. Isn’t this exactly what git cherry-pick is made for? Not so fast. The team has made numerous commits to the files in question.git cherry-pick wants to merge a commit - not a file - from one branch into another branch. We don’t want to have to track down all the commits related to these files. We just want to grab these files in their current state in the feature branch and drop them into the master branch. We couldhunt down the last commit to each of these files and feed that information to git cherry-pick, but that still seems like more work than ought to be necessary.

Idea, the second. How ‘bout git merge --interactive? Sorry. That’s not actually a thing. You’re thinking of git add --interactive (which won’t work for our purposes either). Nice try though.

Idea, the third. Maybe we can just merge the whole branch using --squash, keep the files we want, and throw away the rest. Um, yeah, that would work. Eventually. But we want to be done with this task in ten seconds, not ten minutes.

Idea, the fourth. When in doubt, pull out the brute force approach? Surely we can just check out the feature branch, copy the files we need to a directory outside the repo, checkout the master branch, and then paste the files back in place. Ouch! Yeah. Maybe, but I think we might have our Git license revoked if we resort to such a hack.

The simplest thing that could possibly work

As it turns out, we’re trying too hard. Our good friend git checkout is the right tool for the job.

git checkout source_branch <paths>...

We can simply give git checkout the name of the feature branch [1] and the paths to the specific files that we want to add to our master branch.

$ git branch
* master
$ git checkout twitter_integration app/models/avatar.rb db/migrate/20090223104419_create_avatars.rb test/unit/models/avatar_test.rb test/functional/models/avatar_test.rb
$ git status
# On branch master
# Changes to be committed:
#   (use "git reset HEAD <file>..." to unstage)
#	new file:   app/models/avatar.rb
#	new file:   db/migrate/20090223104419_create_avatars.rb
#	new file:   test/functional/models/avatar_test.rb
#	new file:   test/unit/models/avatar_test.rb
$ git commit -m "'Merge' avatar code from 'twitter_integration' branch"
[master]: created 4d3e37b: "'Merge' avatar code from 'twitter_integration' branch"
4 files changed, 72 insertions(+), 0 deletions(-)
create mode 100644 app/models/avatar.rb
create mode 100644 db/migrate/20090223104419_create_avatars.rb
create mode 100644 test/functional/models/avatar_test.rb
create mode 100644 test/unit/models/avatar_test.rb

Pro Tip: git checkout actually accepts any tree-ish here. So you’re not limited to grabbing code from the current tip of a branch; if needed, you can also check out files using a tag or the SHA for a past commit.

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