Some of you may have witnessed a little dust-up on Twitter yesterday over, of all things, the pronunciation of the word comptroller.

It began when a tweet attempted to ridicule a Maryland state senator for pronouncing the word as “controller.” A number of people pointed out that “controller” is a perfectly standard pronunciation, and the gloves came off for much of the day. I was drawn in when a colleague invited me to comment, and I was not well received by the persons who imagine that “controller” is an incorrect pronunciation.


For those of you who prefer actual information to bluster, here is the deal.

Controller and comptroller are nouns for the same thing, a person who oversees the finances of a corporation or governmental body. Originally, both were pronounced as “controller.”

Controller was the older spelling, lifted from the French contrerollour, “person keeping a roll of accounts.” In the sixteenth century, some Latinists attempted to improve on French loanwords (those bloody Normans) by making them look more like Latin. So they imported the mp from the Latin computus, “counting.”

Both controller and comptroller, existing side by side, were pronounced “controller.” But over time the impulse to pronounce a word as it is spelled led to a new pronunciation. Both spellings and both pronunciations remain in dictionaries today.

It is when a word is in flux—and ­controller/comptroller has been in flux since Henry VII sat on the throne—that minor differences get magnified in people’s minds.

Merriam-Webster continues to list controller as the main word, comptroller as a variant, with “controller” as the first pronunciation.

The American Heritage Dictionary has a usage note that is more nuanced. Its panel of advisors was more or less split on the pronunciations a quarter-century ago, but by its survey in 2011, only a third preferred the “controller” pronunciation. Significantly for comptroller, the pronunciation comp-TROL-ler is unexceptionable, but the note warns that if you say COMP-trol-ler, half of literate listeners will consider it a mispronunciation.

In Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan Garner, who tends to be more conservative on points of usage, concedes that the “comptroller” pronunciation is widespread, but cautions that “sounding the ‘p’ has traditionally been viewed as semiliterate.”

There you have it: two spellings, both current; two pronunciations, both current; and the ever-present possibility that somebody will sneer at your choices.

In English, as elsewhere, you pays your money and you takes your chances.