Similar Words: Uncharted vs. Unchartered

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many changes.  It has also given rise to novelties in our everyday life, and has also brought some phrases and grammatical construction to the forefront. For example, do we have less cases than last month, or fewer cases? Do we say that the number of infections globally is increasing or are increasing? Have we waded into uncharted or unchartered territory? We don’t have all the answers when we comes to the pandemic, but we can at least tackle uncharted vs. unchartered. 

The Quick Answer

The quick answer for those that like to get to the point is: the correct word to use when referring to unfamiliar situations is uncharted. NOT unchartered. But lets get into the nitty-gritty:

Uncharted

When facing something unknown or unfamiliar, we often describe it using the metaphor “uncharted teritory” or “uncharted waters.”  Simply put, the expression describes a territory (historically speaking, water) for which no map or chart exists yet. A land that has not yet been charted. Uncharted means that no one has passed this way before us to figure out the best way forward. In fact, back when trailblazers would sail across the world, mapping its various corners, they would refer to uncharted territory as “terra incognita” (Latin for “unknown land”). Which, by the way, resulted in some pretty cool imagery. But we digress.

Unchartered

But from time to time we hear people refer to unfamiliar situations as “unchartered territory.” Adding the extra “er” is an easy mistake to make. The words sound very familiar and have the same number of syllables. Unchartered, however,  has a different meaning. A charter is a document that establishes the existence and the purpose of something, such as a city or a corporation. Although it is true that unknown territory also has no charter, it just isn’t the correct way to use the expression that indicates the wilderness of the territory, or the unfimiliarity of the situation.  

Now that the confusion between uncharted and unchartered is cleared up, let’s note that there are worst words to mix up. Confusing Leapards and Lepers would lead to the malapropism: “Jesus healing leopards.” And luckily the meaning of unchartered isn’t the exact opposite of our intended meaning. But, of course, precision matters when it comes to language (and when it comes to anything else worth doing, really!). If you want to properly convey that a situation is unknown and possibly perilous, the meaning will be lost if you mistakenly use unchartered.  

We have several articles on this website that address confusing word pairs. You can start with affect vs. effect. 

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