Cue vs. Queue: How to Choose the Right Word

A Prompt, Poolroom Tool, Hair Braid, or Standing in Line? Which is It?

People standing in queue

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Although the words cue and queue have the same pronunciation (making them homophones), they have different meanings. In fact, each of these words has several denotative meanings and can serve as either a noun or a verb, depending on usage.

How to Use "Cue"

The noun cue has two meanings: the first is a prompt—verbal or physical—that alerts actors or other performers of an upcoming line or required action. The second definition of cue is the long slender stick used to propel the cue ball (the white one) in the games of pool, billiards, and snooker.

As a verb, cue means to give a signal or prompt to a speaker. In the early days of radio and television, a cue card was 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 wasn't visible to the audience, so it appeared that the speaker knew what to say and was speaking directly to the viewer. These days, however, cue cards—as well as the assistants responsible for holding and turning them—have largely been replaced by mechanized tele-prompters.

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, such as a line of people waiting for entrance to a sporting event or show. It can also refer to anything that forms a line (such as ducks in a row or a line of cars). As a noun, a queue can also refer to a braid of hair, like a pigtail, or, in computing, to a list of items in a file. As a verb, queue means to form or join a line.

Derivation

The meaning of the word 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 "Quando," meaning "when." Queue comes from a Latin word meaning "tail," which is also the meaning from which pool cue is derived.

Examples

Here are sample sentences that illustrate the difference between a cue and a queue, in American and in British English:

  • The young actor waited nervously for her cue to step onto the stage. Here, cue refers to a prompt or a signal to do something at a precise time.
  • My job with the TV production company is to hold up cue cards to help the actors remember what they're supposed to say. In this usage, instead of prompting the proper timing, the cue card provides information to the actor unseen to the audience.
  • I hope Bill is looking when I cue him to move to stage left. Here cue is used as a verb, meaning to present a cue, or prompt.
  • The pool player picked up his cue to prepare to start the game of eight-ball. In this example, cue refers to the tapered stick a pool player uses to strike the cue ball.
  • To enter the classroom, the children were instructed to form a queue outside the door to the playground. Here queue is used in the British sense of a line of people.
  • Be careful to enter the data in the proper queue in our computer files. This use of queue, meaning a list in a software application, isn't restricted to Britain.
  • For this role, he had to wear his hair in a queue. In this example, the word queue means a plait of hair hanging at the back of the head, like a pigtail.

Idiomatic Uses of "Queue"

In British English, if you "jump the queue," it means one of two things: Either you're pushing your way into a line ahead of others waiting their turn (the American version of this is "cutting in line"), or you're using elevated status or power as an unfair advantage over others to get what you want.

Like queue, "queue up" also means to start or join a line. The word "up" is added in much the same way as it is for the phrase "pair up." While both queue and pair are correct on their own, the addition of "up" is a more common, less formal usage.

Idiomatic Uses of "Cue"

To be "right on cue" means that some event (an arrival, a comment, etc.) has occurred at the proper time. To "take a cue" means to respond properly to a prompt or suggestion.

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