Cue vs.Queue: How to Choose the Right Word

Cue usually refers to a prompt, while a queue is a line in Britain

People standing in queue

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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 the game of pool. Queue is mostly used in Great Britain to refer to a line of people, though it later became a common term referring to a list of computer files.

How to Use 'Cue'

The noun cue refers to a signal or a prompt to do something, such as to 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, such as a line of people waiting for entrance to a sporting event. The noun 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. 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 that illustrate the difference between a cue and a queue, in America and in Britain:

  • 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 8-ball. In this example, cue refers to the tapered stick that 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 means a plait of hair hanging at the back of the head, like a pigtail.

Idiomatic Uses 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 U.S. version of this expression is 'jump [or cut] in line.'" (Judith Siefring, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms)

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.

Sources