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Customize your ZSH prompt with vcs_info

You’re not cool if you’re don’t display some Git status information in your prompt. If you use ZSH – and you should – it’s quite easy to customize your prompt. ZSH comes with a nice package vcs_info that provides almost all the information you need.

vcs_info is a function that populates a variable for you. This variable can then be used inside your prompt to print information. What information is printed can be controlled by some configurations – which are essentially format strings.

Set up

Assuming you are using ZSH, setting things up is easy enough:

  1. Enable vcs_info.
  2. Call it in a pre-command.
  3. Include the variable in your prompt.

To do so, modify your ~/.zshrc:

autoload -Uz vcs_info
zstyle ':vcs_info:*' enable git svn
precmd() {

Then, include the output variable in your prompt:

setopt prompt_subst
PROMPT='${vcs_info_msg_0_}%# '

This example is a rather minimalist prompt, so make sure you customize it with additional information.

Configuring vcs_info

There’s not too much documentation on vcs_info available, but the official docs got enough to get you going. The defaults should be fine, but we wouldn’t be using ZSH and reading articles about vcs_info if we were satisfied with defaults, would we?

Format string

First, set the general format string of your vcs_info_msg_0 variable:

zstyle ':vcs_info:git*' formats "%{$fg[grey]%}%s %{$reset_color%}%r/%S%{$fg[grey]%} %{$fg[blue]%}%b%{$reset_color%}%m%u%c%{$reset_color%} "

This is, admittedly, a little hairy. Let’s remove the color codes:

zstyle ':vcs_info:git*' actionformats "%s  %r/%S %b %m%u%c "

That’s a lot clearer. This would look like this1:

git my_project/. master %

This prompt includes:

The current version control system, like git or svn.
The name of the root directory of the repository
The current path relative to the repository root directory
Branch information, like master
In case of Git, show information about stashes
Show unstaged changes in the repository
Show staged changes in the repository

There’s a special format string for ‘actions’ – which in practice means a special format for when Git is currently performing a merge or rebase. Mine is identical to the normal format, but with the action string added:

zstyle ':vcs_info:git*' formats "%s  %r/%S %b (%a) %m%u%c "

Which would result in something like:

git my_project/. master (rebase) %

This is all I need, although some people do write their own functions to display how many commits the current branch is ahead or behind its remote. Knock yourself out if you’re so inclined.


There are also a couple of flags you can set to influence the vcs_info’s behaviour:

Disabled by default because it might slow things down, it tell the back-end to check for working-copy changes and staged changes. Enable it with zstyle ':vcs_info:*' check-for-changes true if you want to use the %c and %u sequences.
List the versioning systems to enable. In the example above, I have enable Git and Subversion, but there’s many more – notably Mercurial.

The vcs_info format string, especially with lots of color codes, is not all that readable, but I nonetheless prefer using a ZSH library over hacking together my own functions that parse the output of various Git commands.

  1. Note that in order to use colours in your prompts, you’ll also need the line autoload -U colors && colors in your .zshrc

  • Git
  • ZSH
  • vcs_info
Arjan van der Gaag

Arjan van der Gaag

A thirtysomething software developer, historian and all-round geek. This is his blog about Ruby, Rails, Javascript, Git, CSS, software and the web. Back to all talks and articles?


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