When two people have made changes to copies of the same file, diff3 can produce a merged output that contains both sets of changes together with warnings about conflicts.
One might imagine programs with names like diff4 and diff5 to compare more than three files simultaneously, but in practice the need rarely arises. You can use diff3 to merge three or more sets of changes to a file by merging two change sets at a time.
diff3 can incorporate changes from two modified versions into a common preceding version. This lets you merge the sets of changes represented by the two newer files. Specify the common ancestor version as the second argument and the two newer versions as the first and third arguments, like this:
diff3 mine older yours
You can remember the order of the arguments by noting that they are in alphabetical order.
You can think of this as subtracting older from yours and adding the result to mine, or as merging into mine the changes that would turn older into yours. This merging is well-defined as long as mine and older match in the neighborhood of each such change. This fails to be true when all three input files differ or when only older differs; we call this a conflict. When all three input files differ, we call the conflict an overlap.
diff3 gives you several ways to handle overlaps and conflicts. You can omit overlaps or conflicts, or select only overlaps, or mark conflicts with special ‘<<<<<<<’ and ‘>>>>>>>’ lines.
diff3 can output the merge results as an ed script that that can be applied to the first file to yield the merged output. However, it is usually better to have diff3 generate the merged output directly; this bypasses some problems with ed.