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‘Uncharted’ or ‘Unchartered’

People sometimes use "unchartered" when they really mean "uncharted." Don't make that mistake.

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
a ship captain with charts
The Quick And Dirty

"Uncharted" is almost always the word you want.

A follower named Corinne McKay asked me to do a segment on the difference between the words “uncharted” and “unchartered.” So here you go.

The word you usually want is “uncharted.” It’s just the prefix “un-“ with the word “charted” and refers to a place that isn’t mapped or charted. If a sailor came across islands that weren’t on his map, he might call them uncharted islands. 

And of course “uncharted” also has a metaphorical sense of something that is new or that we’ve never had to deal with before: This pandemic is taking us into uncharted territory.

A charter can also be a license to do something. For example, in the United States some districts have charter schools, which means they have a charter to operate as public schools while not being held to many of the rules that apply to the state’s traditional public schools. So maybe you could refer to school that didn’t go through the proper channels as an unchartered school?

It’s actually hard to think of an example in which you’d use “unchartered.” When I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I found 119 results for the word “unchartered” and all but one of them were using it incorrectly to mean “uncharted.” The lone example of it being used properly referred to state-chartered banks, and something called unchartered free banks.

If you’re trying to decide which word to use, think of the captain of a ship with a table full of charts in front of him hoping he doesn’t end up in uncharted territory.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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