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I'm writing a sci-fi novel where some of the characters are computer hackers. In some of the conversations they use the term "owned" which has a broad set of meanings in English. So I wonder if I should write the word as "pwned" like most of the hackers would do in a chat session or an Internet forum.


  • No, I owned that server last month - said Kevin


  • No, I pwned that server last month - said Kevin

Which should I use?

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My general rule with slang is that if it's in quoted text (e.g. dialogue), spell it colloquially (pwned); otherwise, slang in prose should be written properly, when possible (owned). –  drusepth Aug 7 at 16:14
Can I just ask: how the FRAK do you pronounce "pwned"? Is it "poned" (like "owned" or "boned" with a P in front)? Because if you'd say "pwned" out loud, then write it as "pwned." And yes, I more or less know the etymology of the term. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 7 at 16:38
Thanks @drusepth. Could you write that as an answer, and not just a comment so that I can up-vote it. –  Milan Babuškov Aug 7 at 18:21
@LaurenIpsum I've always heard it pronounced "pawned". –  drusepth Aug 7 at 21:25
I don't have time to research a proper answer right now, so this is just my opinion: While writing in dialect can be done well, netspeak is not spoken dialect, and was never meant to be pronounced. I feel that you should spell things in a way that could potentially fit in a human mouth; writing "pwned" and "1337" in dialog makes you look illiterate, not accurate. I use netspeak all the time - in chat rooms and text messages. It has no place in polished prose until these spellings make their way into reputable dictionaries. –  Neil Fein Aug 7 at 22:20

3 Answers 3

I strongly oppose drusepth's answer. Slang is spoken language. Internet slang is written language. You cannot speak it.

Think about how you would speak to a friend. You are unable to say pwned, l33t or n00b out loud. You will say "owned", "leet" and "noob". So, when you write a representation of spoken language such as dialogue you must use what the person would actually say.

You can use internet slang in internal monologue and stream of consciousness, because, after all, you can think the literal representation of a word. So if your narrator is a /b/tard, he1 would certainly use internet slang and not Standard English in his narration, i.e. outside the dialogue.

1 There are no girls on the internet.

Of course, letters are not sounds, and we do not actually say "noob", but (in IPA) /nuːb/. But since the overwhelming majority of readers do not differentiate between phonemes and graphemes but take the letters for the sounds and even "hear" the words as they read, letters are being used as the common representation of spoken language. Such a habitual and unconscious equation of letters and sounds does not yet exist for internet slang, at least not for the general public.

But if you write for a nerd audience and publish in a nerd publication such as Wired, or if your text is heavily ironic, you could use internet slang in dialogue.

If you write for a non-nerd audience, do not forget to explain the slang you use in a note before, or footnote at, the beginning of the text. Just as not everyone in the world can read Lowland Scots, most people would understand "pwned" as a typo and not buy a book that is consistently misspelled.

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I hope your footnote is sarcastic. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 8 at 9:44
@LaurenIpsum Google the phrase "there are no girls on the internet". Most links are NSFW. And yes, the footnote is ironic (not sarcastic, since it is not aimed at women, or anyone else for that matter, but a comment, using internet slang, on my use of the female-excluding male pronoun instead of the singular they in relation to "/b/tard"). –  what Aug 8 at 11:18
I'll cheerfully take the ironic/sarcastic footnote to avoid the singular they. ;) –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 8 at 13:23
Thanks for the answer. Just wanted to pipe in any agree/clarify: I certainly don't advocate for "words" like l33t to make their way into general prose; rather, the rules I outline in my answer are those I use in the rare situations in which I deem these jargony words appropriate (e.g. when writing for a nerd audience). –  drusepth Aug 8 at 14:50
It should also be noted that, as you mention in your second block, there is a vast array of pronunciations around for "unspeakable" written language. Pwnt, for example, already has several pronunciations on this page from only a few people. Picking one of them and going with a specific pronunciation (that a reader may not have heard before, such as "poned" for pwned) may lose not only meaning in its delivery (Our sniper pwned that nub versus Our sniper poned that noob), but also go over a reader's head if they don't put together that the spoken "poned" is, actually, pwned. –  drusepth Aug 8 at 14:55

My general rule with slang is that if it's in quoted text (e.g. dialogue), it should be spelled colloquially (pwned); otherwise, slang in prose should be written properly, when possible (owned).

Just like if you had a southern hillbilly speaking with slang, you would probably quote him saying, "He be talkin' like this'ur," but rarely would you write talkin' like this'ur outside of quotes. It's the difference his/her voice and yours.

This rule also has the added benefit of guiding pronunciation: as a reader I'd find it odd to find pwn in the middle of a paragraph, and someone like @Lauren Ipsum might worry how to pronounce it. In dialogue, however, it's been my experience that readers feel better about not knowing exactly how s'thin's sayed, and are free t'bring (or come up with) their own pronunciation for the words your speaker might as well be making up.

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You can try to avoid the Internet spelling of things, and it'll come out a little more formal, but I think the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Consider: "noob" and "n00b" actually mean slightly different things, and "newb" is something entirely different! You lose meaning by conforming to a formal style. Admittedly, the interlocutor is hearing it and doesn't know for certain which one is in use, but they* have the tone and inflection, so it's only fair that we, the readers, should get the letters (and numbers) in their true form. You have the artistic license to use whichever spelling best conveys the meaning you want.

Pwn is a tricky case. It's not uncommon to hear hackers (and company) pronounce the "P" in "pwn," especially in Pwnie Express, but also in general use. (DEF CON is this weekend if you want to ask around, our you can just take my word for it.) Using a "P" better expresses your character's roots in the Internet, and using an "O" better conveys how your character is pronouncing it. I don't think the pronunciation is actually a solid factor, though. After all, you say "tomato" and I say "tomato," but they're both spelled T-O-M-A-T-O because they're both red fruitgtables that taste good slathered across a pizza. If pronunciation were any basis for spelling, Americans would write "wader" and "rondayvoo." As a computer scientist, my recommendation is to keep the "P." Merriam-Webster may not include "pwn," but it doesn't quite include the Internet definition under "own" either, and where that definition is concerned, "pwn" really is the correct spelling, no matter how it's said. And finally, if nothing else, it adds some flair.

*Don't believe everything 4Chan tells you about females. In fact, don't believe anything 4Chan tells you about females.

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+1 for "fruitgtables." –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 9 at 12:54

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