If we were to regard a watershed period as a period between two distinctly defined epochs, would the adjectives




be instantly recognized (by readers and/or listeners) as pertaining to, respectively, the former and the latter?

As in:

This is a post-watershed novel.

That's a pre-watershed painting.

I don't remember ever using pre-watershed technology.

To clarify:

Before the invention and commercial production of the paint tube, outdoor painting (known as en plein air) was rare. Paints were mostly made in the studio, either by the artist himself or his workshop, and difficult to transport safely.

A brief watershed period followed the introduction of the paint tube during which many artists found themselves adjusting to the new possibilities, after which landscapes were suddenly all the rage.

New techniques appeared and took root despite the numerous objections of some conservative critics. Today, some post-watershed paintings are valued as much as those of the Old Masters (including the entire French Impressionism movement).

Or is there a better term?

  • 2
    Pre- and post-watershed are commonly used in the UK to refer to TV programmes before and after 9 p.m., the time after which shows with more adult content can be broadcast. Mar 31, 2019 at 15:54
  • @KateBunting: Hmm ... So this fact alone would probably confuse British readers and/or listeners ... Okay. Thank you. Can you think of a different term, though?
    – Ricky
    Mar 31, 2019 at 16:07
  • You might say that 1914, 1933, 1989 were 'watersheds', but you would, when discussing the period of each, tend to say before, or after, the Great War, the Nazi era, the end of the Cold War. In Britain there is only one 'watershed', and that is 9 PM on mainstream TV channels. Mar 31, 2019 at 21:46

2 Answers 2


To regard 'watershed' as meaning only a 'period' between epochs would seem to be at odds with Cambridge Dictionary, which gives the meaning as:

an event or period that is important because it represents a big change in how people do or think about something.

Or, if you are that way inclined, Oxford:

An event or period marking a turning point in a situation.

Regarding whether 'pre-watershed' and 'post-watershed' would be instantly recognised as referring to periods before and after some event or period, that, strictly, is a matter of opinion (or a survey), but, given comprehension of the 'pre-' and 'post-' prefixes, and the meaning of 'watershed', I think it's likely that understanding would be pretty rapid.


'Watershed' is, of course, a geographical or topographical term being used metaphorically to refer to a dividing line in time rather than in space. It's not, in my opinion, a very good metaphor, as ground water runs away from the watershed because of the lie of the land, whereas events themselves determine what is a watershed in history. Pre-watershed and post-watershed smack to me of mixed metaphors, but I know that this is pedantic.

  • I didn't say it was a good metaphor. That's precisely why I asked (precisely why, sir!): "Is there a better term?"
    – Ricky
    Apr 1, 2019 at 2:16
  • (a) "I didn't say it was a good metaphor." Indeed not. (b) "If we were to regard a watershed period as a period between two distinctly defined epochs" I think that this stretches the metaphor too far. (c) "Is there a better term?" I prefer the good old-fashioned 'turning point' but, for an extended period of time, 'transition period'. Apr 1, 2019 at 9:53
  • So the better term would be "post-turning-point" or "post-transition" or what?
    – Ricky
    Apr 1, 2019 at 11:41
  • I don't much like either. This is on grounds of style rather than grammar or logic. As someone has already suggested, in the last paragraph of your extended quote it might be better to go for something more specific, like "Today some paintings produced with paint from tubes [...]". Apr 1, 2019 at 11:52

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