Git: Split Out Mechanical Changes

Sometimes a Git commit gets “contaminated” with mechanical changes applied by a code editor or some other tool, and that often makes reviewing the code unnecessarily more onerous as the reviewers need to split in their heads what was an automatic operation and what are the main changes meant to be in a commit.

With a few Git commands you can quickly separate those mechanical changes into a separate commit that can be verified independently. Here is how:

  1. Look at the previous commit and see that it has both mechanical changes and manual changes:

    git show
  2. (optional) Create a branch named “backup” (or any other name) to help verify your changes later:

    git branch backup
  3. Temporarily undo the previous commit:

    git revert HEAD --no-edit

    To get a list of the files that changed in your original commit (and consequently also in the commit that reverts the changes):

    git diff-tree --no-commit-id --name-only -r HEAD

    We’ll use that to feed file paths to a tool. The tool may be a code formatter, or whatever else.

    As an example, consider a Python code base using yapf for formatting and isort for sorting imports. Let’s continue.

  4. Run tool to make mechanical changes to files:

    isort -y $(git diff-tree --no-commit-id --name-only -r HEAD)
    yapf -i $(git diff-tree --no-commit-id --name-only -r HEAD)

    Note that depending on the tool and on the list of files, you may need to accommodate for situations like a new file was added in your original commit and thus it doesn’t exist once the original commit is reverted.

    There are several ways to handle it, one simple way is to use grep or grep -v to filter the file names.

    yapf -i $(git diff-tree --no-commit-id --name-only -r HEAD | grep only_this_file.py)
    yapf -i $(git diff-tree --no-commit-id --name-only -r HEAD | grep -v not_this_file.py)
  5. Time to review your changes and make a new commit.

  6. Now comes the final step: reorder the commits and remove the revert of the original change.

    This step is accomplished using git rebase -i (interactive rebase).

    git rebase -i @{upstream} -X theirs

    This command will open your default editor with a list of commits. There should be 3 commits, first your original commit, then the revert, and finally the commit with the mechanical changes.

    1 pick 52fe10a Original commit
    2 pick 324fa22 Revert "Original commit"
    3 pick 4f024b0 Run yapf and isort

    Use your editor to move the mechanical commit to the top and delete the line with the revert commit.

    1 pick 4f024b0 Run yapf and isort
    2 pick 52fe10a Original commit

    Save and close the editor.

    You may wonder what the -X theirs is for. Sure, what is that for?
    While applying the original commit on top of the commit with mechanical changes, there might be merge conflicts. In this particular case, it is clear that the final state should match exactly what was in the original commit. The -X theirs tell Git to prefer the original commit whenever a conflict would appear.

    The rebase operation should succeed, no manual edits required.


  1. Before submitting your two commits, check that they match the original single commit:

    git diff backup..HEAD

    There should be no output.

  2. Review your last two commits:

    git log -p -2
  3. Remove your backup branch:

    git branch -D backup