Article

What Is a 'Comptroller,' and How Do You Pronounce It?

This puzzling English word has been annoying and confusing people since the early 1500s.

Published June 23, 2021

Middle Eastern woman tracking and trading stocks using laptop and desktop computer. Stock Exchange, investment, and financial trading concept. (Getty Images)
Middle Eastern woman tracking and trading stocks using laptop and desktop computer. Stock Exchange, investment, and financial trading concept. (Image Via Getty Images)

In the business world, a comptroller is someone who oversees the accounting and financial reporting of an organization, to ensure that expenditures are properly recorded and that balance sheets, income statements, and financial statements are correctly prepared and issued.

However, many people who have only seen the word in print (or don't realize they've heard it spoken out loud) are surprised to find that "comptroller" is pronounced as if it were written "controller":

How did we derive this unusual pronunciation for a word in which the "pt" is silent and an "m" is pronounced like an "n"?

The most common explanation is that "comptroller" is derived from the French word contreroule and the Middle English word countreroller, referring to someone who checks a scroll (or counter-roll), so the word really is "controller" and is pronounced like it. But, somewhere along the way, someone mistakenly thought "controller" was related to the French word compte (meaning "account") and therefore erroneously rendered it as "comptroller," and the latter spelling stuck.

That illogical spelling has grated on many an ear (or, more appropriately, many an eye) for a very long time, as Merriam-Webster notes:

The resulting word, "comptroller," has attracted criticism over the years. Grammarian Henry Fowler condemned "comptroller" as "not merely archaic, but erroneous" in 1920, and a lexicographical column from 1931 agreed that "comptroller" is "erroneous and should not be accepted as correct."

Some have theorized that the "comptroller" spelling may have been maintained even though it seemed wrong because "in official titles it was deemed useful to have the title dissociated from the word and concept of 'control.'"

As is common in language use, so many people now pronounce "comptroller" phonetically rather than as "controller" that the former is becoming more acceptable, even if critics and linguists still insist it is not technically correct.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994 as a creative outgrowth of his wide-ranging interests in a variety of subjects (particularly folklo ... read more