Last week, I received a frantic phone call from my student, Anish. He had just written his IELTS exam and while thinking about his writing test, he realised that he wrote ‘pie chart’ instead of tables. A similar incident happened to Arjun, who realised that he’d said ‘nani’ instead of ‘grandmother’ (the term carries a slightly different connotation in Hindi as it refers to one’s maternal grandmother) in his Speaking test.

Both of them were relieved to know that those mistakes wouldn’t affect their score at all, and by the time their results arrived, they knew for sure that their mistakes did not count against them.

This is because there is a large difference between the three types of inaccuracies in expressions of language: errors, mistakes and slips.

Errors are made when you don’t know the relevant rule(s) and so you do not write or say something correctly. This shows a lack of knowledge about that particular aspect of language. Generally, people do not have the ability to detect and correct their own errors. This of course can hurt your score.

Mistakes are made when you are aware of a grammar, syntax or linguistic rule and can understand and implement it correctly for the most part, but it isn’t perfectly set in your mind yet, either due to lack of practice or lack of clarity, so you may misuse that aspect of language. You may have the ability to detect and correct your mistakes. However, mistakes, by their very definition, cannot be common; they occur occasionally. If a teacher tells you that you make many mistakes, you might actually be making errors. Mistakes do not really harm your score, but if they exist in abundance for a variety of aspects, they can bring your score down.

Slips are the rarest type of inaccuracy and do not apply to the written text, as texts can be edited before submission, but the spoken word cannot be retracted or modified. These are temporary lapses in judgement; they are accidental. Slips are often corrected by the speaker immediately after being made. These can be made when the speaker is stressed out, nervous or anxious. These do not affect your score at all. However, there is an important point to be made about anxiety: if, in speaking, it prevents you from being coherent, you will see your Fluency and Coherence score stay lower than what you’d like.