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I'd like to know whether der Teil actually means something different than das Teil.

According to this article in Der Spiegel, the meanings are as follows:

Der Teil (Teil eines Ganzen):

der Erdteil, der Landesteil, der Stadtteil, der Elternteil, der Bestandteil, der (vordere/hintere) Zugteil, der Mittelteil (z.B. mittlerer Abschnitt eines Buches)

Das Teil (loses Stück):

das Puzzleteil, das Ersatzteil, das Einzelteil, das Altenteil, das Oberteil, das Plastikteil, das Wrackteil

A puzzle piece is a part of a whole puzzle, for example.

Did they just make that up? Who said so? How thoroughly did they differentiate between regional variations and semantics? How is this different than when my two South Tyrolean friends explain that the one says "der Knödel" and the other says "das Knödel"? Is there anybody out there using forms in contexts that do not conform to "norms"?

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    Why would they make this up? duden.de/rechtschreibung/Teil – Em1 May 12 '17 at 13:30
  • @Em1 That's just an expression. What is the level of precision used by our friends at Duden or the ÖWB for this rule? – Jonathan Komar May 12 '17 at 13:51
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    Duden is a bit behind as it does not denote the substantial differences between masculine and neuter usage - dict.cc is more precise her: de.wiktionary.org/wiki/Teil – tofro May 12 '17 at 14:05
  • Although n if it's after it has been broken apart and m if it's before works in a lot of cases, there is no general rule which compound substantives of Teil should be m or n (das Hinterteil [your backside] is a prominent exception). I fear you'll have to learn them separately. – tofro May 12 '17 at 14:15
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    Related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/8715/… – Carsten S May 13 '17 at 4:01
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The specific question may nearly be a duplicate of the one that was already linked to in the comments. But in any case: They did not make this up.

The differences may indeed be subtle. It's hard to give a general, unambiguous rule of when to use which gender for Teil.

You mentioned

A puzzle piece is a part of a whole puzzle, for example.

This is true. And if you assemble 50 pieces of a 100-piece puzzle, then you could say

Der erste Teil des Puzzles ist schon fertig

The examples that you listed also contained das Oberteil, which usually refers to clothing (e.g. the jacket of a costume). But you you could also have a sentence like

Der Oberteil des Autos ist rot

referring to the upper part of something.

You may even have seemingly odd combinations of both cases:

Wenn ich das Teil hinzufüge, ist der erste Teil des Puzzles fertig

or

Es wurde der Teil des Autos repariert, der bei dem Unfall beschädigt wurde, und das Teil ausgetauscht, das den Unfall verursacht hat.


The best rule of thumb that I'd come up with is:

  • You use "das Teil" when you refer to something that is intended to be an "atomic" part of something else. Roughly: When you could also call it an "Element" without changing the meaning.

  • You use "der Teil" when you refer to a part that is somewhat arbitrarily (or not clearly) separated from the rest.

But again: This may not be sufficient to always find the right gender in cases where you just don't know it.

  • I just now start to think my (das) Hinterteil would be an atomic part of me and what the consequences could be... I would definitely not call it my Hinterelement – tofro May 13 '17 at 16:00
  • @tofro Apart from the fact that "das Hinterteil" is a bit colloquial: The hint was supposed to say that calling it "Element" would not change its meaning - not that you could legitimately call it so. Again, it's nearly impossible to define a strict rule that fits for all cases, but I hope that thinking of "das Teil" as some sort of self-contained element might be helpful... – Marco13 May 13 '17 at 16:20
  • @Marco13 intended seems like a keyword missing in some definitions. Thanks for your helpful insights. – Jonathan Komar May 14 '17 at 6:57
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A puzzle piece is a part of a whole puzzle, for example.

In addition to Marco13's excellent answer:

In a very special context you could even form the word "der Puzzleteil":

When you cleaning up the floor and find a single puzzle part you are saying "das Puzzleteil": It is a single part and not just a part of something bigger.

However maybe you are talking about a (complete) puzzle and the "upper part of the puzzle" shows a clowdy sky. In fact the "upper part of the puzzle" consists of 500 single puzzle parts.

In this case you might translate "upper part of the puzzle" by "der obere Puzzleteil": You are not talking about a single part (but about 500 single parts) but you are talking about the fraction of something bigger.

Note: Germans say "der Teil des Puzzles" and not "der Puzzleteil" in this case.

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Yes, we Germans sometimes distinguish lexical items by gender. That is hard to swallow for people coming from languages without grammatical gender, but you'll just have to take it on faith until you become fluent.

In this particular case, sure, the meanings are close to each other. They may or may not have originated from the same root. But that doesn't change the fact that we would always say "Das Teil" when speaking e.g. about items of clothing or someones hot wheels, and "Der Teil" when referencing e.g. the West wing of a building.

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