One of the easiest ways to drive me over the edge is to misuse certain words or phrases. My vocabulary is by no means pristine (and, in French, it's laughable at best), but it makes me crazy to see wonderful, intelligent nerds like yourself saying things incorrectly.
With the help of some lovely Twitter participants, I came up with this list of word-nerd trigger points:
"Compliment/complement." You don't "compliment" your computer science major with a TAM minor ... I mean, unless your TAM thesis is about how awesome Objective-C is and how you loved Calc 3. Similarly, your prof's comments on your paper weren't "complementing" your wit. To complement is to find something that completes another; to compliment is to politely express admiration.
"i.e./e.g." Ah, Latin. You tricky beast. Not that you'll retain it, but i.e. stands for "id est" and e.g. represents "exempli gratia." I see these two abbreviations misused often, even by professors. Instead of trying to remember the Latin translations, try this trick — pretty sure I learned it from The Oatmeal. Using i.e.? What you should mean to say is "in essence." And e.g. is used to signify an example — or, as the comic so cleverly put it, "eggsample." Boom.
"Begs the question..." If you've taken Intro to Philosophy, you've probably gone through the fallacy lesson and should therefore be an expert on why this is used incorrectly. For those of you who chose a different core class, check it: "begging the question" is a fallacy in which someone assumes the end of an argument without coming to it logically. It's a form of circular reasoning, not an event that makes you ask a certain question. What you mean to say in that instance is that it raises the question.
"Alum." OK, rant time. We're in a college town, so this word gets thrown around a LOT and is hands down my biggest pet peeve. Alum is a chemical compound, not someone who's graduated from college. A male is an alumnus, and his lady counterpart is an alumna. Plural? Alumni for the dudes and mixed-gender groups, and alumnae for us badass bitches. And don't ever say "alumnis" to me unless you want to be put on my blacklist. I see too many Twitter bios of people claiming to be a "CU alum," collectively bringing down the value of our degrees.
Now that you've learned these distinctions, make sure you use them right. It breaks my heart when you intentionally do it so you "don't sound pretentious." You worked hard to learn those words! Use them!
Jess Ryan is a community manager and CU alumna. She writes about nerdy things once a week for the Colorado Daily. Compliment her on Twitter: twitter.com/JessicaLRyan.