Handling files in Mercurial

Telling Mercurial which files to track

Mercurial does not work with files in your repository unless you tell it to manage them. The hg status command will tell you which files Mercurial doesn't know about; it uses a “?” to display such files.

To tell Mercurial to track a file, use the hg add command. Once you have added a file, the entry in the output of hg status for that file changes from “?” to “A”.

$ hg init add-example
$ cd add-example
$ echo a > myfile.txt
$ hg status
? myfile.txt
$ hg add myfile.txt
$ hg status
A myfile.txt
$ hg commit -m 'Added one file'
$ hg status

After you run a hg commit, the files that you added before the commit will no longer be listed in the output of hg status. The reason for this is that by default, hg status only tells you about “interesting” files—those that you have (for example) modified, removed, or renamed. If you have a repository that contains thousands of files, you will rarely want to know about files that Mercurial is tracking, but that have not changed. (You can still get this information; we'll return to this later.)

Once you add a file, Mercurial doesn't do anything with it immediately. Instead, it will take a snapshot of the file's state the next time you perform a commit. It will then continue to track the changes you make to the file every time you commit, until you remove the file.

Explicit versus implicit file naming

A useful behavior that Mercurial has is that if you pass the name of a directory to a command, every Mercurial command will treat this as “I want to operate on every file in this directory and its subdirectories”.

$ mkdir b
$ echo b > b/somefile.txt
$ echo c > b/source.cpp
$ mkdir b/d
$ echo d > b/d/test.h
$ hg add b
adding b/d/test.h
adding b/somefile.txt
adding b/source.cpp
$ hg commit -m 'Added all files in subdirectory'

Notice in this example that Mercurial printed the names of the files it added, whereas it didn't do so when we added the file named myfile.txt in the earlier example.

What's going on is that in the former case, we explicitly named the file to add on the command line. The assumption that Mercurial makes in such cases is that we know what we are doing, and it doesn't print any output.

However, when we imply the names of files by giving the name of a directory, Mercurial takes the extra step of printing the name of each file that it does something with. This makes it more clear what is happening, and reduces the likelihood of a silent and nasty surprise. This behavior is common to most Mercurial commands.

Mercurial tracks files, not directories

Mercurial does not track directory information. Instead, it tracks the path to a file. Before creating a file, it first creates any missing directory components of the path. After it deletes a file, it then deletes any empty directories that were in the deleted file's path. This sounds like a trivial distinction, but it has one minor practical consequence: it is not possible to represent a completely empty directory in Mercurial.

Empty directories are rarely useful, and there are unintrusive workarounds that you can use to achieve an appropriate effect. The developers of Mercurial thus felt that the complexity that would be required to manage empty directories was not worth the limited benefit this feature would bring.

If you need an empty directory in your repository, there are a few ways to achieve this. One is to create a directory, then hg add a “hidden” file to that directory. On Unix-like systems, any file name that begins with a period (“.”) is treated as hidden by most commands and GUI tools. This approach is illustrated below.

$ hg init hidden-example
$ cd hidden-example
$ mkdir empty
$ touch empty/.hidden
$ hg add empty/.hidden
$ hg commit -m 'Manage an empty-looking directory'
$ ls empty
$ cd ..
$ hg clone hidden-example tmp
updating to branch default
1 files updated, 0 files merged, 0 files removed, 0 files unresolved
$ ls tmp
$ ls tmp/empty

Another way to tackle a need for an empty directory is to simply create one in your automated build scripts before they will need it.

How to stop tracking a file

Once you decide that a file no longer belongs in your repository, use the hg remove command. This deletes the file, and tells Mercurial to stop tracking it (which will occur at the next commit). A removed file is represented in the output of hg status with a “R”.

$ hg init remove-example
$ cd remove-example
$ echo a > a
$ mkdir b
$ echo b > b/b
$ hg add a b
adding b/b
$ hg commit -m 'Small example for file removal'
$ hg remove a
$ hg status
R a
$ hg remove b
removing b/b

After you hg remove a file, Mercurial will no longer track changes to that file, even if you recreate a file with the same name in your working directory. If you do recreate a file with the same name and want Mercurial to track the new file, simply hg add it. Mercurial will know that the newly added file is not related to the old file of the same name.

Removing a file does not affect its history

It is important to understand that removing a file has only two effects.

  • It removes the current version of the file from the working directory.
  • It stops Mercurial from tracking changes to the file, from the time of the next commit.

Removing a file does not in any way alter the history of the file.

If you update the working directory to a changeset that was committed when it was still tracking a file that you later removed, the file will reappear in the working directory, with the contents it had when you committed that changeset. If you then update the working directory to a later changeset, in which the file had been removed, Mercurial will once again remove the file from the working directory.

Missing files

Mercurial considers a file that you have deleted, but not used hg remove to delete, to be missing. A missing file is represented with “!” in the output of hg status. Mercurial commands will not generally do anything with missing files.

$ hg init missing-example
$ cd missing-example
$ echo a > a
$ hg add a
$ hg commit -m 'File about to be missing'
$ rm a
$ hg status
! a

If your repository contains a file that hg status reports as missing, and you want the file to stay gone, you can run hg remove at any time later on, to tell Mercurial that you really did mean to remove the file.

$ hg remove --after a
$ hg status
R a

On the other hand, if you deleted the missing file by accident, give hg revert the name of the file to recover. It will reappear, in unmodified form.

$ hg revert a
$ cat a
$ hg status

Aside: why tell Mercurial explicitly to remove a file?

You might wonder why Mercurial requires you to explicitly tell it that you are deleting a file. Early during the development of Mercurial, it let you delete a file however you pleased; Mercurial would notice the absence of the file automatically when you next ran a hg commit, and stop tracking the file. In practice, this made it too easy to accidentally remove a file without noticing.

Useful shorthand—adding and removing files in one step

Mercurial offers a combination command, hg addremove, that adds untracked files and marks missing files as removed.

$ hg init addremove-example
$ cd addremove-example
$ echo a > a
$ echo b > b
$ hg addremove
adding a
adding b

The hg commit command also provides a -A option that performs this same add-and-remove, immediately followed by a commit.

$ echo c > c
$ hg commit -A -m 'Commit with addremove'
adding c

Copying files

Mercurial provides a hg copy command that lets you make a new copy of a file. When you copy a file using this command, Mercurial makes a record of the fact that the new file is a copy of the original file. It can use this information later on, when you combine your own changes with work from other people.

Behavior of the hg copy command

When you use the hg copy command, Mercurial makes a copy of each source file as it currently stands in the working directory. This means that if you make some modifications to a file, then hg copy it without first having committed those changes, the new copy will also contain the modifications you have made up until that point. (I find this behavior a little counterintuitive, which is why I mention it here.)

The hg copy command acts similarly to the Unix cp command (you can use the hg cp alias if you prefer). We must supply two or more arguments, of which the last is treated as the destination, and all others are sources.

If you pass hg copy a single file as the source, and the destination does not exist, it creates a new file with that name.

$ mkdir k
$ hg copy a k
$ ls k

If the destination is a directory, Mercurial copies its sources into that directory.

$ mkdir d
$ hg copy a b d
$ ls d

Copying a directory is recursive, and preserves the directory structure of the source.

$ hg copy z e
copying z/a/c to e/a/c

If the source and destination are both directories, the source tree is recreated in the destination directory.

$ hg copy z d
copying z/a/c to d/z/a/c

As with the hg remove command, if you copy a file manually and then want Mercurial to know that you've copied the file, simply use the --after option to hg copy.

$ cp a n
$ hg copy --after a n

Renaming files

It's rather more common to need to rename a file than to make a copy of it. The reason I discussed the hg copy command before talking about renaming files is that Mercurial treats a rename in essentially the same way as a copy. Therefore, knowing what Mercurial does when you copy a file tells you what to expect when you rename a file.

When you use the hg rename command, Mercurial makes a copy of each source file, then deletes it and marks the file as removed.

$ hg rename a b

The hg status command shows the newly copied file as added, and the copied-from file as removed.

$ hg status
A b
R a

As with the results of a hg copy, we must use the -C option to hg status to see that the added file is really being tracked by Mercurial as a copy of the original, now removed, file.

$ hg status -C
A b
R a

As with hg remove and hg copy, you can tell Mercurial about a rename after the fact using the --after option. In most other respects, the behavior of the hg rename command, and the options it accepts, are similar to the hg copy command.

If you're familiar with the Unix command line, you'll be glad to know that hg rename command can be invoked as hg mv.

Recovering from mistakes

Mercurial has some useful commands that will help you to recover from some common mistakes.

The hg revert command lets you undo changes that you have made to your working directory. For example, if you hg add a file by accident, just run hg revert with the name of the file you added, and while the file won't be touched in any way, it won't be tracked for adding by Mercurial any longer, either. You can also use hg revert to get rid of erroneous changes to a file.

It is helpful to remember that the hg revert command is useful for changes that you have not yet committed. Once you've committed a change, if you decide it was a mistake, you can still do something about it, though your options may be more limited.

For more information about the hg revert command, and details about how to deal with changes you have already committed, see chap:undo.

More useful diffs

The default output of the hg diff command is backwards compatible with the regular diff command, but this has some drawbacks.

Consider the case where we use hg rename to rename a file.

$ hg rename a b
$ hg diff
diff -r cb9a9f314b8b a
--- a/a       Thu Jan 01 00:00:00 1970 +0000
+++ /dev/null Thu Jan 01 00:00:00 1970 +0000
@@ -1,1 +0,0 @@
diff -r cb9a9f314b8b b
--- /dev/null Thu Jan 01 00:00:00 1970 +0000
+++ b/b       Wed May 17 04:01:44 2017 +0000
@@ -0,0 +1,1 @@

The output of hg diff above obscures the fact that we simply renamed a file. The hg diff command accepts an option, --git or -g, to use a newer diff format that displays such information in a more readable form.

$ hg diff -g
diff --git a/a b/b
rename from a
rename to b

This option also helps with a case that can otherwise be confusing: a file that appears to be modified according to hg status, but for which hg diff prints nothing. This situation can arise if we change the file's execute permissions.

$ chmod +x a
$ hg st
M a
$ hg diff

The normal diff command pays no attention to file permissions, which is why hg diff prints nothing by default. If we supply it with the -g option, it tells us what really happened.

$ hg diff -g
diff --git a/a b/a
old mode 100644
new mode 100755

Which files to manage, and which to avoid

Revision control systems are generally best at managing text files that are written by humans, such as source code, where the files do not change much from one revision to the next. Some centralized revision control systems can also deal tolerably well with binary files, such as bitmap images.

For instance, a game development team will typically manage both its source code and all of its binary assets (e.g. geometry data, textures, map layouts) in a revision control system.

Because it is usually impossible to merge two conflicting modifications to a binary file, centralized systems often provide a file locking mechanism that allow a user to say “I am the only person who can edit this file”.

Compared to a centralized system, a distributed revision control system changes some of the factors that guide decisions over which files to manage and how.

For instance, a distributed revision control system cannot, by its nature, offer a file locking facility. There is thus no built-in mechanism to prevent two people from making conflicting changes to a binary file. If you have a team where several people may be editing binary files frequently, it may not be a good idea to use Mercurial—or any other distributed revision control system—to manage those files.

When storing modifications to a file, Mercurial usually saves only the differences between the previous and current versions of the file. For most text files, this is extremely efficient. However, some files (particularly binary files) are laid out in such a way that even a small change to a file's logical content results in many or most of the bytes inside the file changing. For instance, compressed files are particularly susceptible to this. If the differences between each successive version of a file are always large, Mercurial will not be able to store the file's revision history very efficiently. This can affect both local storage needs and the amount of time it takes to clone a repository.

To get an idea of how this could affect you in practice, suppose you want to use Mercurial to manage an OpenOffice document. OpenOffice stores documents on disk as compressed zip files. Edit even a single letter of your document in OpenOffice, and almost every byte in the entire file will change when you save it. Now suppose that file is 2MB in size. Because most of the file changes every time you save, Mercurial will have to store all 2MB of the file every time you commit, even though from your perspective, perhaps only a few words are changing each time. A single frequently-edited file that is not friendly to Mercurial's storage assumptions can easily have an outsized effect on the size of the repository.

Even worse, if both you and someone else edit the OpenOffice document you're working on, there is no useful way to merge your work. In fact, there isn't even a good way to tell what the differences are between your respective changes.

There are thus a few clear recommendations about specific kinds of files to be very careful with.

  • Files that are very large and incompressible, e.g. ISO CD-ROM images, will by virtue of sheer size make clones over a network very slow.
  • Files that change a lot from one revision to the next may be expensive to store if you edit them frequently, and conflicts due to concurrent edits may be difficult to resolve.

Running commands without any file names

Mercurial's commands that work with file names have useful default behaviors when you invoke them without providing any file names or patterns. What kind of behavior you should expect depends on what the command does. Here are a few rules of thumb you can use to predict what a command is likely to do if you don't give it any names to work with.

  • Most commands will operate on the entire working directory. This is what the hg add command does, for example.
  • If the command has effects that are difficult or impossible to reverse, it will force you to explicitly provide at least one name or pattern (see below). This protects you from accidentally deleting files by running hg remove with no arguments, for example.

It's easy to work around these default behaviors if they don't suit you. If a command normally operates on the whole working directory, you can invoke it on just the current directory and its subdirectories by giving it the name “.”.

$ cd src
$ hg add -n
adding ../MANIFEST.in
adding ../examples/performant.py
adding ../setup.py
adding main.py
adding watcher/_watcher.c
adding watcher/watcher.py
adding xyzzy.txt
$ hg add -n .
adding main.py
adding watcher/_watcher.c
adding watcher/watcher.py
adding xyzzy.txt

Along the same lines, some commands normally print file names relative to the root of the repository, even if you're invoking them from a subdirectory. Such a command will print file names relative to your subdirectory if you give it explicit names. Here, we're going to run hg status from a subdirectory, and get it to operate on the entire working directory while printing file names relative to our subdirectory, by passing it the output of the hg root command.

$ hg status
A examples/simple.py
? examples/performant.py
? setup.py
? src/main.py
? src/watcher/_watcher.c
? src/watcher/watcher.py
? src/xyzzy.txt
$ hg status `hg root`
A ../examples/simple.py
? ../MANIFEST.in
? ../examples/performant.py
? ../setup.py
? main.py
? watcher/_watcher.c
? watcher/watcher.py
? xyzzy.txt

Telling you what's going on

The hg add example in the preceding section illustrates something else that's helpful about Mercurial commands. If a command operates on a file that you didn't name explicitly on the command line, it will usually print the name of the file, so that you will not be surprised what's going on.

The principle here is of least surprise. If you've exactly named a file on the command line, there's no point in repeating it back at you. If Mercurial is acting on a file implicitly, e.g. because you provided no names, or a directory, or a pattern (see below), it is safest to tell you what files it's operating on.

For commands that behave this way, you can silence them using the -q option. You can also get them to print the name of every file, even those you've named explicitly, using the -v option.

Using patterns to identify files

In addition to working with file and directory names, Mercurial lets you use patterns to identify files. Mercurial's pattern handling is expressive.

On Unix-like systems (Linux, MacOS, etc.), the job of matching file names to patterns normally falls to the shell. On these systems, you must explicitly tell Mercurial that a name is a pattern. On Windows, the shell does not expand patterns, so Mercurial will automatically identify names that are patterns, and expand them for you.

To provide a pattern in place of a regular name on the command line, the mechanism is simple:


That is, a pattern is identified by a short text string that says what kind of pattern this is, followed by a colon, followed by the actual pattern.

Mercurial supports two kinds of pattern syntax. The most frequently used is called glob; this is the same kind of pattern matching used by the Unix shell, and should be familiar to Windows command prompt users, too.

When Mercurial does automatic pattern matching on Windows, it uses glob syntax. You can thus omit the “glob:” prefix on Windows, but it's safe to use it, too.

The re syntax is more powerful; it lets you specify patterns using regular expressions, also known as regexps.

By the way, in the examples that follow, notice that I'm careful to wrap all of my patterns in quote characters, so that they won't get expanded by the shell before Mercurial sees them.

Shell-style glob patterns

This is an overview of the kinds of patterns you can use when you're matching on glob patterns.

The “*” character matches any string, within a single directory.

$ hg add 'glob:*.py'
adding main.py

The “**” pattern matches any string, and crosses directory boundaries. It's not a standard Unix glob token, but it's accepted by several popular Unix shells, and is very useful.

$ cd ..
$ hg status 'glob:**.py'
A examples/simple.py
A src/main.py
? examples/performant.py
? setup.py
? src/watcher/watcher.py

The “?” pattern matches any single character.

$ hg status 'glob:**.?'
? src/watcher/_watcher.c

The “[” character begins a character class. This matches any single character within the class. The class ends with a “]” character. A class may contain multiple ranges of the form “a-f”, which is shorthand for “abcdef”.

$ hg status 'glob:**[nr-t]'
? src/xyzzy.txt

If the first character after the “[” in a character class is a “!”, it negates the class, making it match any single character not in the class.

A “{” begins a group of subpatterns, where the whole group matches if any subpattern in the group matches. The “,” character separates subpatterns, and “}” ends the group.

$ hg status 'glob:*.{in,py}'
? setup.py

Watch out!

Don't forget that if you want to match a pattern in any directory, you should not be using the “*” match-any token, as this will only match within one directory. Instead, use the “**” token. This small example illustrates the difference between the two.

$ hg status 'glob:*.py'
? setup.py
$ hg status 'glob:**.py'
A examples/simple.py
A src/main.py
? examples/performant.py
? setup.py
? src/watcher/watcher.py

Regular expression matching with re patterns

Mercurial accepts the same regular expression syntax as the Python programming language (it uses Python's regexp engine internally). This is based on the Perl language's regexp syntax, which is the most popular dialect in use (it's also used in Java, for example).

I won't discuss Mercurial's regexp dialect in any detail here, as regexps are not often used. Perl-style regexps are in any case already exhaustively documented on a multitude of web sites, and in many books. Instead, I will focus here on a few things you should know if you find yourself needing to use regexps with Mercurial.

A regexp is matched against an entire file name, relative to the root of the repository. In other words, even if you're already in subbdirectory foo, if you want to match files under this directory, your pattern must start with “foo/”.

One thing to note, if you're familiar with Perl-style regexps, is that Mercurial's are rooted. That is, a regexp starts matching against the beginning of a string; it doesn't look for a match anywhere within the string. To match anywhere in a string, start your pattern with “.*”.

Filtering files

Not only does Mercurial give you a variety of ways to specify files; it lets you further winnow those files using filters. Commands that work with file names accept two filtering options.

  • -I, or --include, lets you specify a pattern that file names must match in order to be processed.
  • -X, or --exclude, gives you a way to avoid processing files, if they match this pattern.

You can provide multiple -I and -X options on the command line, and intermix them as you please. Mercurial interprets the patterns you provide using glob syntax by default (but you can use regexps if you need to).

You can read a -I filter as “process only the files that match this filter”.

$ hg status -I '*.in'

The -X filter is best read as “process only the files that don't match this pattern”.

$ hg status -X '**.py' src
? src/watcher/_watcher.c
? src/xyzzy.txt

Permanently ignoring unwanted files and directories

When you create a new repository, the chances are that over time it will grow to contain files that ought to not be managed by Mercurial, but which you don't want to see listed every time you run hg status. For instance, “build products” are files that are created as part of a build but which should not be managed by a revision control system. The most common build products are output files produced by software tools such as compilers. As another example, many text editors litter a directory with lock files, temporary working files, and backup files, which it also makes no sense to manage.

To have Mercurial permanently ignore such files, create a file named .hgignore in the root of your repository. You should hg add this file so that it gets tracked with the rest of your repository contents, since your collaborators will probably find it useful too.

By default, the .hgignore file should contain a list of regular expressions, one per line. Empty lines are skipped. Most people prefer to describe the files they want to ignore using the “glob” syntax that we described above, so a typical .hgignore file will start with this directive:

syntax: glob

This tells Mercurial to interpret the lines that follow as glob patterns, not regular expressions.

Here is a typical-looking .hgignore file.

syntax: glob
# This line is a comment, and will be skipped.
# Empty lines are skipped too.

# Backup files left behind by the Emacs editor.

# Lock files used by the Emacs editor.
# Notice that the "#" character is quoted with a backslash.
# This prevents it from being interpreted as starting a comment.

# Temporary files used by the vim editor.

# A hidden file created by the Mac OS X Finder.

Case sensitivity

If you're working in a mixed development environment that contains both Linux (or other Unix) systems and Macs or Windows systems, you should keep in the back of your mind the knowledge that they treat the case (“N” versus “n”) of file names in incompatible ways. This is not very likely to affect you, and it's easy to deal with if it does, but it could surprise you if you don't know about it.

Operating systems and filesystems differ in the way they handle the case of characters in file and directory names. There are three common ways to handle case in names.

  • Completely case insensitive. Uppercase and lowercase versions of a letter are treated as identical, both when creating a file and during subsequent accesses. This is common on older DOS-based systems.
  • Case preserving, but insensitive. When a file or directory is created, the case of its name is stored, and can be retrieved and displayed by the operating system. When an existing file is being looked up, its case is ignored. This is the standard arrangement on Windows and MacOS. The names foo and FoO identify the same file. This treatment of uppercase and lowercase letters as interchangeable is also referred to as case folding.
  • Case sensitive. The case of a name is significant at all times. The names foo and FoO identify different files. This is the way Linux and Unix systems normally work.

On Unix-like systems, it is possible to have any or all of the above ways of handling case in action at once. For example, if you use a USB thumb drive formatted with a FAT32 filesystem on a Linux system, Linux will handle names on that filesystem in a case preserving, but insensitive, way.

Safe, portable repository storage

Mercurial's repository storage mechanism is case safe. It translates file names so that they can be safely stored on both case sensitive and case insensitive filesystems. This means that you can use normal file copying tools to transfer a Mercurial repository onto, for example, a USB thumb drive, and safely move that drive and repository back and forth between a Mac, a PC running Windows, and a Linux box.

Detecting case conflicts

When operating in the working directory, Mercurial honours the naming policy of the filesystem where the working directory is located. If the filesystem is case preserving, but insensitive, Mercurial will treat names that differ only in case as the same.

An important aspect of this approach is that it is possible to commit a changeset on a case sensitive (typically Linux or Unix) filesystem that will cause trouble for users on case insensitive (usually Windows and MacOS) users. If a Linux user commits changes to two files, one named myfile.c and the other named MyFile.C, they will be stored correctly in the repository. And in the working directories of other Linux users, they will be correctly represented as separate files.

If a Windows or Mac user pulls this change, they will not initially have a problem, because Mercurial's repository storage mechanism is case safe. However, once they try to hg update the working directory to that changeset, or hg merge with that changeset, Mercurial will spot the conflict between the two file names that the filesystem would treat as the same, and forbid the update or merge from occurring.

Fixing a case conflict

If you are using Windows or a Mac in a mixed environment where some of your collaborators are using Linux or Unix, and Mercurial reports a case folding conflict when you try to hg update or hg merge, the procedure to fix the problem is simple.

Just find a nearby Linux or Unix box, clone the problem repository onto it, and use Mercurial's hg rename command to change the names of any offending files or directories so that they will no longer cause case folding conflicts. Commit this change, hg pull or hg push it across to your Windows or MacOS system, and hg update to the revision with the non-conflicting names.

The changeset with case-conflicting names will remain in your project's history, and you still won't be able to hg update your working directory to that changeset on a Windows or MacOS system, but you can continue development unimpeded.