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Preverbal construing
"A preverbal construct is one which continues to be used even though it has no consistent word symbol. It may or may not have been devised before the person had command of speech." (Kelly, 1955/1991, Vol. 2, p. 6)
Kelly's way of dealing with what several psychological theoretical systems call the unconscious was to say we construe at different levels of cognitive awareness. At the lowest levels of cognitive awareness are preverbal construing, submergence and suspension. Preverbal construing in particular plays a major role in dealing with the generally accepted view that much of the sense we make of our world does not involve conscious "thinking".
Although Kelly says in his definition that the term refers to construing that may or may not have been created before the onset of speech, in practice it describes discriminations we made between events before we had learned any language. The discriminations a baby makes between "faces" at a very early age have no verbal labels attached to them. The "face" that appears regularly and makes nice noises and makes me comfortable is different from all those other "faces". Because these early discriminations are about those who care for the infant, they very often relate to dependency needs.
Sometimes these preverbal discriminations between events in early life never get verbal labels attached to them. As we grow up such preverbal constructs can cause us problems. They may come into play when we meet a stranger who provokes a gut reaction that "tell us" we do not like this person. Or they may cause more serious problems in later life such as when a young child comes to construe herself as not loveable. To the child this may not be a problem but "just how things are". But in adulthood it can be. For instance, there are women who say that they can never maintain a permanent relationship with a man. All seems to go well for a time but eventually the relationship breaks down. The woman who is unlovable is just unable to change this core view of herself. So she turns to that sometimes destructive way of construing - she becomes hostile in Kelly's sense. For instance, the theme throughout her stories of these relationships is one in which, perhaps, she becomes over-possessive and simply drives the man out of her life. She has proved she is right - she is indeed unlovable.
Kelly linked preverbal construing to psychosomatic problems. For example, a small child may have noted that whenever he had a stomach complaint his mother was particularly caring of him. No verbal labels here, but in adult life, whenever he feels in need of care, his stomach give problems - ultimately perhaps leading to a stomach ulcer.
The term "acting out" is used by several theoretical systems to describe a person's behaviour which is deemed to relate to processes not available to consciousness. In Kelly's theory, what can one do with preverbal construing that has no verbal labels except "behave" it? The counsellor or therapist has to try to understand the construing that lies behind the "acting out" behaviour.
A point needs to be made here about Kelly not distinguishing clearly between those construct discriminations that are created before the development of language (preverbal) and those that are created later in life and just do not get words attached to them. Neimeyer (1981), for instance, discusses this point and suggests this latter "non-verbal" construing might be better named tacit construing.  

  • Neimeyer, R. A. (1981) The structure and meaningfulness of tacit construing. In H. Bonarius, R. Holland & S. Rosenberg (eds) Personal Construct Psychology: Recent Advances in Theory and Practice. London: Macmillan Publishers

Fay Fransella

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004