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Using Git Attributes for Keyword Expansion and Substitution

Last Updated : 18 Mar, 2024
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Git attributes provide a powerful way to specify how certain files should be treated by Git. Among the many possible uses, one particularly useful application is keyword expansion and substitution. This feature allows developers to automatically replace specific keywords within files with corresponding values, making it handy for managing version information, author details, and other metadata within source code files.

Here’s a detailed overview of how to utilize Git attributes for keyword expansion and substitution:

Understanding Git Attributes:

Git attributes are key-value pairs that can be defined in a ‘.gitattributes’ file located in the root directory of a Git repository or in the ‘.git/info/attributes’ file for repository-specific settings. These attributes specify how Git should treat files within the repository.

Keyword Expansion and Substitution:

Keyword expansion and substitution in Git involve replacing specific placeholders (keywords) within files with actual values when the files are committed or checked out. This process can be automated using Git’s built-in mechanism.

Commonly Used Keywords:

Some commonly used keywords for expansion and substitution include:

  • ‘$Id$’: Inserts the commit ID of the most recent commit that modified the file.
  • ‘$Date$’: Inserts the date and time of the last commit that modified the file.
  • ‘$Author$’: Inserts the name of the author who made the last modification to the file.
  • ‘$Revision$’: Inserts the revision number of the last commit that modified the file.

Configuring Git Attributes:

To enable keyword expansion and substitution for specific files, you need to define the desired keywords and their corresponding values in the ‘.gitattributes’ file. Here’s an example:

# Define keyword substitution for specific file types
*.txt filter=keyword_expansion

# Define keyword expansion behavior
[filter "keyword_expansion"]
clean = git-keyword-filter %f
smudge = cat

In this example:

  • ‘*.txt’ specifies that keyword expansion should be applied to all text files.
  • ‘filter=keyword_expansion’ indicates that the ‘keyword_expansion’ filter should be used for these files.
  • The ‘[filter “keyword_expansion”]’ section specifies the behavior of the ‘keyword_expansion’ filter.
  • ‘clean’ defines the command to apply when files are staged (committed). In this case, it’s a custom script (‘git-keyword-filter’) that replaces keywords with their corresponding values.
  • ‘smudge’ defines the command to apply when files are checked out. Here, cat is used to pass files through unchanged.
  • ‘required’ ensures that Git throws an error if the ‘clean’ or ‘smudge’ commands fail.

Implementing Keyword Expansion Script:

The ‘git-keyword-filter’ script referenced in the ‘.gitattributes’ file should be created to perform the keyword substitution. This script typically reads the file content, replaces the keywords with their values, and writes the modified content back to the file.

Here’s a simplified example of such a script in Bash:


# Define keywords and their replacements
id=$(git rev-parse --short HEAD)
date=$(git log -1 --format=%cd --date=format:'%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S')
author=$(git log -1 --format=%an)
revision=$(git log -1 --format=%h)

# Perform keyword substitution
sed -e "s/\$Id\$/$id/g" \
-e "s/\$Date\$/$date/g" \
-e "s/\$Author\$/$author/g" \
-e "s/\$Revision\$/$revision/g" "$1"

This script retrieves the necessary information (commit ID, date, author, revision) using Git commands and replaces the corresponding keywords in the file content.

Using Keyword Expansion:

Once the .gitattributes file and the keyword expansion script are set up, Git will automatically perform keyword expansion and substitution when files are staged or checked out. Developers can simply include the keywords in their files, and Git will handle the rest.


Utilizing Git attributes for keyword expansion and substitution streamlines the management of version information and metadata within source code files. By automating the process of updating keywords with actual values, developers can maintain accurate records and improve traceability within their Git repositories. With proper configuration and implementation, this feature enhances workflow efficiency and facilitates collaboration among team members working on version-controlled projects.

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