Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: timpani.

timpani. Part A: Spelling Dilemma: “timpani” vs. *”tympani.” In modern print sources, the spelling “timpani” is more common than *”tympani” by a 5-to-1 ratio. The latter ought to be rejected as a variant spelling (though the medical term for “eardrum” is “tympanic membrane,” so spelled). Of course, British English writers solve the problem by using the term “kettledrum.” Another synonym, rarely used, is “timbal.” Language-Change Index — (1) “timpani” spelled *”tympani”: Stage 2. Part B: Singular or Plural. The word “timpani” — though borrowed into English as the plural form of the Italian singular “timpano” — has become interchangeably singular or plural. Most commonly, of course, the word is plural — e.g.: “The Jefferson Symphony Orchestra has been awarded a $14,110 grant by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation for a set of four new timpani.” “Good for You,” Rocky Mountain News (Denver), 3 Oct. 1996, at D14. But it’s often singular as well. Even professional musicians commonly refer to “a timpani,” not *”a timpano” — e.g.: “The incessant beat of an Aztec drum, which looks like a bongo but booms like a timpani, permeates the entire building.” Hsiao-Ching Chou, “Fiddle Fervor Woman Passes on Legacy of Unique Instrument,” Denver Post, 28 Aug. 1996, at G1. Language-Change Index: “timpani” as a singular: Stage 5. Part C: *”Timpani drum.” This phrase is a redundancy — e.g.: “The pit . . . is made up of 14 people on xylophones, marimbas, chimes, gongs, tympani drums [read ‘timpani’ or ‘kettledrums’], glockenspiels, bells, triangles, tambourines and more.” Michael Colton, “Esprit de Corps,” Boston Globe, 17 Aug. 1994, at 73. Language-Change Index — *”timpani drum” for “timpani” or “kettledrum”: Stage 1. *Invariably inferior form. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Some professionals write their first drafts in a white heat without pausing for revision. Any pause for corrections causes them to lose their ‘first fine careless rapture.'” Paul R. Reynolds, The Writing and Selling of Non-Fiction 29 (1963).
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