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I'm beginning to read my first book in German (I haven't taken any courses on the language, just Duolingo, but it's not too helpful) and I am wondering why it titles the first part with "erster Teil" instead of "erstes Teil", because I would have said this is in the nominative case and Teil is a neuter word, then "erste" should become "erstes" and not "erster" which I think is the masculine nominative case. What is it I am not understanding?

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Teil has various nuanced meanings, among them "part (of a book)" and "part (of a machine)". Unfortunately, they differ in genus.

DWDS lists e.g.

1. Abschnitt, Glied, Stück von einem Ganzen

Grammatik: Genus Maskulinum
Beispiele:

  • der obere, vordere Teil eines Gegenstandes, Hauses, Schrankes
  • der nördliche Teil des Landes
  • der redaktionelle Teil der Zeitung
  • der erste, zweite Teil des Buches, Dramas, Gedichtes

which is the "part (of a book)" that your question is about, and

4. als selbstständig betrachtetes, für sich allein bestehendes Stück eines Ganzen, Einzelstück, Einzelteil

Schreibung: Teil; Grammatik: Genus Neutrum
siehe auch Teilchen
Beispiele:

  • ein defektes Teil ausbauen, auswechseln, einsetzen
  • ich habe jedes einzelne Teil in der Hand gehabt

which is the "part (of a machine)" that you learned as being neutrum (das Teil).

While this may come across as very nitpicky and unnecessary on the part of the German language, it should become a non-issue with some practice. Native speakers can distinguish those meanings and use the proper genus without thinking about it.

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  • There is a short list of German nouns with multiple genders depending on the meaning. Another is See (both die and der).
    – RDBury
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 20:36
  • There is a similar list at german.stackexchange.com/questions/49433/… but it also lists words that just use different articles depending on who's speaking or writing, but where the meaning does not change (Blackout, Butter, Jogurt, ...). Commented May 19, 2023 at 20:43

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