The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 16 Feb 2017

Automatically checking for syntax errors with Git's pre-commit hook

Previous related article
Earlier related article

Over the past couple of days I've written about how I committed a syntax error on a cron script, and a co-worker had to fix it on Saturday morning. I observed that I should have remembered to check the script for syntax errors before committing it, and several people wrote to point out to me that this is the sort of thing one should automate.

(By the way, please don't try to contact me on Twitter. It won't work. I have been on Twitter Vacation for months and have no current plans to return.)

Git has a “pre-commit hook” feature, which means that you can set up a program that will be run every time you attempt a commit, and which can abort the commit if it doesn't like what it sees. This is the natural place to put an automatic syntax check. Some people suggested that it should be part of the CI system, or even the deployment system, but I don't control those, and anyway it is much better to catch this sort of thing as early as possible. I decided to try to implement a pre-commit hook to check syntax.

Unlike some of the git hooks, the pre-commit hook is very simple to use. It gets run when you try to make a commit, and the commit is aborted if the hook exits with a nonzero status.

I made one mistake right off the bat: I wrote the hook in Bourne shell, even though I swore years ago to stop writing shell scripts. Everything that I want to write in shell should be written in Perl instead or in some equivalently good language like Python. But the sample pre-commit hook was written in shell and when I saw it I went into automatic shell scripting mode and now I have yet another shell script that will have to be replaced with Perl when it gets bigger. I wish I would stop doing this.

Here is the hook, which, I should say up front, I have not yet tried in day-to-day use. The complete and current version is on github.


    function typeof () {
        case $filename in
            *.pl | *.pm) echo perl; exit ;;

        line1=$(head -1 $1)
        case $line1 in '#!'*perl )
            echo perl; exit ;;

Some of the sample programs people showed me decided which files needed to be checked based only on the filename. This is not good enough. My most important Perl programs have filenames with no extension. This typeof function decides which set of checks to apply to each file, and the minimal demonstration version here can do that based on filename or by looking for the #!...perl line in the first line of the file contents. I expect that this function will expand to include other file types; for example

               *.py ) echo python; exit ;;

is an obvious next step.

    if [ ! -z $COMMIT_OK ]; then
        exit 0;

This block is an escape hatch. One day I will want to bypass the hook and make a commit without performing the checks, and then I can COMMIT_OK=1 git commit …. There is actually a --no-verify flag to git-commit that will skip the hook entirely, but I am unlikely to remember it.

(I am also unlikely to remember COMMIT_OK=1. But I know from experience that I will guess that I might have put an escape hatch into the hook. I will also guess that there might be a flag to git-commit that does what I want, but that will seem less likely to be true, so I will look in the hook program first. This will be a good move because my hook is much shorter than the git-commit man page. So I will want the escape hatch, I will look for it in the best place, and I will find it. That is worth two lines of code. Sometimes I feel like the guy in Memento. I have not yet resorted to tattooing COMMIT_OK=1 on my chest.)

    exec 1>&2

This redirects the standard output of all subsequent commands to go to standard error instead. It makes it more convenient to issue error messages with echo and such like. All the output this hook produces is diagnostic, so it is appropriate for it to go to standard error.

    for file in $(git diff --cached --name-only | sort) ; do

allOK is true if every file so far has passed its checks. badFiles is a list of files that failed their checks. the git diff --cached --name-only function interrogates the Git index for a list of the files that have been staged for commit.

        type=$(typeof "$file")

This invokes the typeof function from above to decide the type of the current file.


When a check discovers that the current file is bad, it will signal this by setting BAD to true.

        echo "##  Checking file $file (type $type)"
        case $type in
            perl )
                perl -cw $file || BAD=true
                [ -x $file ] || { echo "File is not executable"; BAD=true; }
            * )
                echo "Unknown file type: $file; no checks"

This is the actual checking. To check Python files, we would add a python) … ;; block here. The * ) case is a catchall. The perl checks run perl -cw, which does syntax checking without executing the program. It then checks to make sure the file is executable, which I am sure is a mistake, because these checks are run for .pm files, which are not normally supposed to be executable. But I wanted to test it with more than one kind of check.

        if $BAD; then

If the current file was bad, the allOK flag is set false, and the commit will be aborted. The current filename is appended to badFiles for a later report. Bash has array variables but I don't remember how they work and the manual made it sound gross. Already I regret not writing this in a real language.

After the modified files have been checked, the hook exits successfully if they were all okay, and prints a summary if not:

    if $allOK; then
        exit 0;
        echo ''
        echo '## Aborting commit.  Failed checks:'
        for file in $(echo $badFiles | tr ';' ' '); do
            echo "    $file"
        exit 1;

This hook might be useful, but I don't know yet; as I said, I haven't really tried it. But I can see ahead of time that it has a couple of drawbacks. Of course it needs to be built out with more checks. A minor bug is that I'd like to apply that is-executable check to Perl files that do not end in .pm, but that will be an easy fix.

But it does have one serious problem I don't know how to fix yet. The hook checks the versions of the files that are in the working tree, but not the versions that are actually staged for the commit!

The most obvious problem this might cause is that I might try to commit some files, and then the hook properly fails because the files are broken. Then I fix the files, but forget to add the fixes to the index. But because the hook is looking at the fixed versions in the working tree, the checks pass, and the broken files are committed!

A similar sort of problem, but going the other way, is that I might make several changes to some file, use git add -p to add the part I am ready to commit, but then the commit hook fails, even though the commit would be correct, because the incomplete changes are still in the working tree.

I did a little tinkering with git stash save -k to try to stash the unstaged changes before running the checks, something like this:

        git stash save -k "pre-commit stash" || exit 2
        trap "git stash pop" EXIT

but I wasn't able to get anything to work reliably. Stashing a modified index has never worked properly for me, perhaps because there is something I don't understand. Maybe I will get it to work in the future. Or maybe I will try a different method; I can think of several offhand:

  • The hook could copy each file to a temporary file and then run the check on the temporary file. But then the diagnostics emitted by the checks would contain the wrong filenames.

  • It could move each file out of the way, check out the currently-staged version of the file, check that, and then restore the working tree version. (It can skip this process for files where the staged and working versions are identical.) This is not too complicated, but if it messes up it could catastrophically destroy the unstaged changes in the working tree.

  • Check out the entire repository and modified index into a fresh working tree and check that, then discard the temporary working tree. This is probably too expensive.

  • This one is kind of weird. It could temporarily commit the current index (using --no-verify), stash the working tree changes, and check the files. When the checks are finished, it would unstash the working tree changes, use git-reset --soft to undo the temporary commit, and proceed with the real commit if appropriate.

  • Come to think of it, this last one suggests a much better version of the same thing: instead of a pre-commit hook, use a post-commit hook. The post-commit hook will stash any leftover working tree changes, check the committed versions of the files, unstash the changes, and, if the checks failed, undo the commit with git-reset --soft.

Right now the last one looks much the best but perhaps there's something straightforward that I didn't think of yet.

[ Thanks to Adam Sjøgren, Jeffrey McClelland, and Jack Vickeridge for discussing this with me. Jeffrey McClelland also suggested that syntax checks could be profitably incorporated as a post-receive hook, which is run on the remote side when new commits are pushed to a remote. I said above that running the checks in the CI process seems too late, but the post-receive hook is earlier and might be just the thing. ]

[ Addendum: Daniel Holz wrote to tell me that the Yelp pre-commit frameworkhandles the worrisome case of unstaged working tree changes. The strategy is different from the ones I suggested above. If I'm reading this correctly, it records the unstaged changes in a patch file, which it sticks somewhere, and then checks out the index. If all the checks succeed, it completes the commit and then tries to apply the patch to restore the working tree changes. The checks in Yelp's framework might modify the staged files, and if they do, the patch might not apply; in this case it rolls back the whole commit. Thank you M. Holtz! ]

[Other articles in category /prog] permanent link