Cue vs.Queue: How to Choose the Right Word

Cue refers to a prompt or a pool stick, queue to a line or a pigtail

cue and queue
In Lessons From the Land of Pork Scratchings (2008), Greg Gutfeld says, "I like the word queue because, in order to spell it, you must first ask four vowels to stand in line behind a consonant. The word is an embarrassment of riches, vowelwise. And that must drive the vowels nuts. Because they are probably British.".

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Although the words "cue" and "queue" are pronounced the same (in other words, they're homophones), they have different meanings. "Cue" usually means a prompt, though it also can signify an object used in a game of pool. "Queue" is mostly used in Great Britain to refer to a line of people.

How to Use Cue

The noun "cue" refers to a signal or a prompt to do something, such as speak a line in a play. It also can be used in the term "cue card," which refers to a written prompt held up by a production assistant to show a speaker on stage or on camera what to say at a specific point. The assistant isn't visible to the audience, so it appears that the speaker knows what to say and speaks directly to the viewer. As a verb, "cue" means to give a signal or prompt to a speaker.

Also as a noun, "cue" can refer to the rod used to strike balls in the games of pool, billiards, and snooker.

The meaning of "cue" as a prompt came from the use of the letter "Q" in 16th and 17th century theater; "Q" is thought to have been an abbreviation for a Latin word such as quando, meaning "when." Its meaning as a pool implement came from "queue," referring to a long, straight line.

How to Use Queue

The noun "queue" is used more commonly in British English than in American English to refer to a sequence of items or to a line of people who are waiting for something. The noun can also refer to a braid of hair, like a pigtail, or in computing to a list of data items. As a verb, "queue" means to form or join a line. It's often joined by "up," as in to "queue up."

"Queue" comes from a Latin word meaning a tail. That sense of a line suggests the use of "queue" to refer to a line of people, cars, or other items.

Examples

Here are sample sentences using "cue" and "queue":

  • The young actor waited nervously for her cue to step onto the stage.
  • The pool player picked up his cue to prepare to start the game of 8-ball.
  • "At lunchtime, they all stood in the queue at the bank, then they all bought a sandwich and came back to eat it at their desks." (Joe Moran, "Queuing for Beginners")
  • "At breakfast, they queued up to get their meal tickets verified, then queued up again to get a ladle full of mush and a weak cup of coffee or tea or some other anemic simulacrum." (Elizabeth Norman, "We Band of Angels")

Idiomatic Use of Queue

If you jump the queue, you "(1) push into a queue of people in order to be served or dealt with before your turn; (2) take unfair precedence over others. The US version of this expression is jump [or cut] in line." (Judith Siefring, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms)

Sources

Webster's New World College Dictionary