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git-symbolic-ref - read and modify symbolic refs
'git-symbolic-ref' <name> [<ref>]
Given one argument, reads which branch head the given symbolic
ref refers to and outputs its path, relative to the `.git/`
directory. Typically you would give `HEAD` as the <name>
argument to see on which branch your working tree is on.
Give two arguments, create or update a symbolic ref <name> to
point at the given branch <ref>.
Traditionally, `.git/HEAD` is a symlink pointing at
`refs/heads/master`. When we want to switch to another branch,
we did `ln -sf refs/heads/newbranch .git/HEAD`, and when we want
to find out which branch we are on, we did `readlink .git/HEAD`.
This was fine, and internally that is what still happens by
default, but on platforms that does not have working symlinks,
or that does not have the `readlink(1)` command, this was a bit
cumbersome. On some platforms, `ln -sf` does not even work as
advertised (horrors).
A symbolic ref can be a regular file that stores a string that
begins with `ref: refs/`. For example, your `.git/HEAD` *can*
be a regular file whose contents is `ref: refs/heads/master`.
This can be used on a filesystem that does not support symbolic
links. Instead of doing `readlink .git/HEAD`, `git-symbolic-ref
HEAD` can be used to find out which branch we are on. To point
the HEAD to `newbranch`, instead of `ln -sf refs/heads/newbranch
.git/HEAD`, `git-symbolic-ref HEAD refs/heads/newbranch` can be
Currently, .git/HEAD uses a regular file symbolic ref on Cygwin,
and everywhere else it is implemented as a symlink. This can be
changed at compilation time.
Written by Junio C Hamano <>
Part of the gitlink:git[7] suite