Commit discipline

We follow the Git project’s own commit discipline practice of “Each commit is a minimal coherent idea”. This discipline takes a bit of work, but it makes it much easier for code reviewers to spot bugs, and makes the commit history a much more useful resource for developers trying to understand why the code works the way it does, which also helps a lot in preventing bugs.

Each commit must be coherent

  • It should pass tests (so test updates needed by a change should be in the same commit as the original change, not a separate “fix the tests that were broken by the last commit” commit).

  • It should be safe to deploy individually, or explain in detail in the commit message as to why it isn’t (maybe with a [manual] tag). So implementing a new API endpoint in one commit and then adding the security checks in a future commit should be avoided – the security checks should be there from the beginning.

  • Error handling should generally be included along with the code that might trigger the error.

  • TODO comments should be in the commit that introduces the issue or the functionality with further work required.

Commits should generally be minimal

  • Significant refactorings should be done in a separate commit from functional changes.

  • Moving code from one file to another should be done in a separate commits from functional changes or even refactoring within a file.

  • 2 different refactorings should be done in different commits.

  • 2 different features should be done in different commits.

  • If you find yourself writing a commit message that reads like a list of somewhat dissimilar things that you did, you probably should have just done multiple commits.

When not to be overly minimal

  • For completely new features, you don’t necessarily need to split out new commits for each little subfeature of the new feature. E.g., if you’re writing a new tool from scratch, it’s fine to have the initial tool have plenty of options/features without doing separate commits for each one. That said, reviewing a 2000-line giant blob of new code isn’t fun, so please be thoughtful about submitting things in reviewable units.

  • Don’t bother to split backend commits from frontend commits, even though the backend can often be coherent on its own.

Write a clean commit history

  • Overly fine commits are easy to squash later, but not vice versa. So err toward small commits, and the code reviewer can advise on squashing.

  • If a commit you write doesn’t pass tests, you should usually fix that by amending the commit to fix the bug, not writing a new “fix tests” commit on top of it.

Zulip expects you to structure the commits in your pull requests to form a clean history before we will merge them. It’s best to write your commits following these guidelines in the first place, but if you don’t, you can always fix your history using git rebase -i (more on that here).

Never mix multiple changes together in a single commit, but it’s great to include several related changes, each in their own commit, in a single pull request. If you notice an issue that is only somewhat related to what you were working on, but you feel that it’s too minor to create a dedicated pull request, feel free to append it as an additional commit in the pull request for your main project (that commit should have a clear explanation of the bug in its commit message). This way, the bug gets fixed, but this independent change is highlighted for reviewers. Or just create a dedicated pull request for it. Whatever you do, don’t squash unrelated changes together in a single commit; the reviewer will ask you to split the changes out into their own commits.

It can take some practice to get used to writing your commits with a clean history so that you don’t spend much time doing interactive rebases. For example, often you’ll start adding a feature, and discover you need to do a refactoring partway through writing the feature. When that happens, we recommend you stash your partial feature, do the refactoring, commit it, and then unstash and finish implementing your feature.

For additional guidance on how to structure your commits (and why it matters!), check out GitHub’s excellent blog post.

Commit messages

Commit messages have two parts:

  1. A summary, which is a brief one-line overview of the changes.

  2. A description, which provides further details on the changes, the motivation behind them, and why they improve the project.

In Zulip, commit summaries have a two-part structure:

  1. A one or two word description of the part of the codebase changed by the commit.

  2. A short sentence summarizing your changes.

Here is an example of a good commit message:

tests: Remove ignored realm_str parameter from message send test.

In commit 8181ec4, we removed the realm_str as a parameter for send_message_backend. This removes a missed test that included this as a parameter for that endpoint/function.

The commit message is a key piece of how you communicate with reviewers and future contributors, and is no less important than the code you write. This section provides detailed guidance on how to write an excellent commit message.

Tip: You can set up Zulip’s Git pre-commit hook to automatically catch common commit message mistakes.

Commit summary, part 1

The first part of the commit summary should only be 1-2 lower-case words, followed by a :, describing what the part of the product the commit changes. These prefixes are essential for maintainers to efficiently skim commits when doing release management or investigating regressions.

Common examples include: settings, message feed, compose, left sidebar, right sidebar, recent (for Recent conversations), search, markdown, tooltips, popovers, drafts, integrations, email, docs, help, and api docs.

When it’s possible to do so concisely, it’s helpful to be a little more specific, e.g., emoji, spoilers, polls. However, a simple settings: is better than a lengthy description of a specific setting.

If your commit doesn’t cleanly map to a part of the product, you might use something like “css” for CSS-only changes, or the name of the file or technical subsystem principally being modified (not the full path, so realm_icon, not zerver/lib/

There is no need to be creative here! If one of the examples above fits your commit, use it. Consistency makes it easier for others to scan commit messages to find what they need.

Additional tips:

  • Use lowercase (e.g., “settings”, not “Settings”).

  • If it’s hard to find a 1-2 word description of the part of the codebase affected by your commit, consider again whether you have structured your commits well.

  • Never use a generic term like “bug”, “fix”, or “refactor”.

Commit summary, part 2

This is a complete sentence that briefly summarizes your changes. There are a few rules to keep in mind:

  • Start the sentence with an imperative verb, e.g. “fix”, “add”, “change”, “rename”, etc.

  • Use proper capitalization and punctuation.

  • Avoid abbreviations and acronyms.

  • Be concise, and don’t include unnecessary details. For example, “Change X and update tests/docs,” would be better written as just, “Change X,” since (as discussed above) every commit is expected to update tests and documentation as needed.

  • Make it readable to someone who is familiar with Zulip’s codebase, but hasn’t been involved with the effort you’re working on.

  • Use no more than 72 characters for the entire commit summary (parts 1 and 2).

Examples of good commit summaries

  • provision: Improve performance of installing npm.

  • channel: Discard all HTTP responses while reloading.

  • integrations: Add GitLab integration.

  • typeahead: Rename compare_by_popularity() for clarity.

  • typeahead: Convert to ES6 module.

  • tests: Compile Handlebars templates with source maps.

  • blueslip: Add feature to time common operations.

  • gather_subscriptions: Fix exception handling bad input.

  • stream_settings: Fix save/discard widget on narrow screens.

Detailed example

  • Good summary: “gather_subscriptions: Fix exception handling bad input.”

  • Not so good alternatives:

    • “gather_subscriptions was broken”: This doesn’t explain how it was broken, and doesn’t follow the format guidelines for commit summaries.

    • “Fix exception when given bad input”: It’s impossible to tell what part of the codebase was changed.

    • Not using the imperative:

      • “gather_subscriptions: Fixing exception when given bad input.”

      • “gather_subscriptions: Fixed exception when given bad input.”

Commit description

The body of the commit message should explain why and how the change was made. Like a good code comment, it should provide context and motivation that will help both a reviewer now, and a developer looking at your changes a year later, understand the motivation behind your decisions.

Many decisions may be documented in multiple places (for example, both in a commit message and a code comment). The general rules of thumb are:

  • Use the commit message for information that’s relevant for someone trying to understand the change this commit is making, or the difference between the old version of the code and the new version. In particular, this includes information about why the new version of the code is better than, or not worse than, the old version.

  • Use code comments, or the code itself, for information that’s relevant for someone trying to read and understand the new version of the code in the future, without comparing it to the old version.

  • If the information is helpful for reviewing your work (for example, an alternative approach that you rejected or are considering, something you noticed that seemed weird, or an error you aren’t sure you resolved correctly), include it in the PR description / discussion.

As an example, if you have a question that you expect to be resolved during the review process, put it in a PR comment attached to a relevant part of the changes. When the question is resolved, remember to update code comments and/or the commit description to document the reasoning behind the decisions.

There are some cases when the best approach is improving the code or commit structure, not writing up details in a comment or a commit message. For example:

  • If the information is the description of a calculation or function, consider the abstractions you’re using. Often, a better name for a variable or function is a better path to readable code than writing a prose explanation.

  • If the information describes an additional change that you made while working on the commit, consider whether it is separable from the rest of the changes. If it is, it should probably be moved to its own commit, with its own commit message explaining it. Reviewing and integrating a series of several well-written commits is far easier than reviewing those same changes in a single commit.

When you fix a GitHub issue, mark that you have fixed the issue in your commit message so that the issue is automatically closed when your code is merged, and the commit has a permanent reference to the issue(s) that it resolves. Zulip’s preferred style for this is to have the final paragraph of the commit message read, e.g., Fixes #123..

Note: Avoid using a phrase like Partially fixes #1234., as GitHub’s regular expressions ignore the “partially” and close the issue. Fixes part of #1234. is a good alternative.

The purpose of the commit description

The commit summary and description should, taken together, explain to another Zulip developer (who may not be deeply familiar with the specific files/subsystems you’re changing) why this commit improves the project. This means explaining both what it accomplishes, and why it won’t break things one might worry about it breaking.

  • Include any important investigation/reasoning that another developer would need to understand in order to verify the correctness of your change. For example, if you’re removing a parameter from a function, the commit message might say, “It’s safe to remove this parameter because it was always False,” or, “This behavior needs to be removed because …”. A reviewer will likely check that indeed it was always False as part of checking your work – what you’re doing is providing them a chain of reasoning that they can verify.

  • Provide background context. A good pattern in a commit message description is, “Previously, when X happened, this caused Y to happen, which resulted in …”, followed by a description of the negative outcome.

  • Don’t include details that are obvious from looking at the diff for the commit, such as lists of the names of the files or functions that were changed, or the fact that you updated the tests.

  • Avoid unnecessary personal narrative about the process through which you developed this commit or pull request, like “First I tried X” or “I changed Y”.

Mentioning other contributors

You can credit co-authors on a commit by adding a Co-authored-by: line after a blank line at the end of your commit message:

Co-authored-by: Greg Price <>

You can also add other notes, such as Reported-by:, Debugged-by:, or Suggested-by:, but we don’t typically do so.

Never @-mention a contributor in a commit message, as GitHub will turn this into a notification for the person every time a version of the commit is rebased and pushed somewhere. If you want to send someone a notification about a change, @-mention them in the PR thread.

Formatting guidelines

There are a few specific formatting guidelines to keep in mind:

  • The commit description should be separated from the commit summary by a blank line. Most tools, including GitHub, will misrender commit messages that don’t do this.

  • Use full sentences and paragraphs, with proper punctuation and capitalization. Paragraphs should be separated with a single blank line.

  • Be sure to check your description for typos, spelling, and grammar mistakes; commit messages are important technical writing and English mistakes will distract reviewers from your ideas.

  • Your commit message should be line-wrapped to about 68 characters per line, but no more than 70, so that your commit message will be easy to read in git log in a normal terminal. (It’s OK for links to be longer – ignore gitlint when it complains about them.)

Tip: You may find it helpful to configure Git to use your preferred editor using the EDITOR environment variable or git config --global core.editor, and configure the editor to automatically wrap text to 70 or fewer columns per line (all text editors support this).

Examples of good commit messages