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Cue vs. queue

A cue is (1) a signal prompting an event or action, especially in a performance; and (2) the long stick used to strike the cue ball in billiards and pool. The word also works as a verb meaning give a cue. A queue is (1) a line of people waiting for something, and (2) a hair braid worn down the back of the neck. As a verb, queue means get in line or place in line. Both these homophones are often used with upcue up meaning prepare [something] to start on cue, and queue up meaning get in line. 

Queue is rare in American English. And when American writers use it, it’s sometimes spelled cue—for example:

A younger brother, Garret, is also in the cue. [Our Colorado News]

The musicians cueing up to salute Paul McCartney at MusiCares were nervous enough about doing justice to their hero’s classics. [USA Today]


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But we find very few such instances of this use of cue in carefully edited news publications, and those we do find are from quoted text, letters, and comments. The edited publications generally use queue, though the word is seen less often than synonyms such as line. For what it’s worth, among the many dictionaries we checked, only the American Heritage Dictionary lists cue as a variant of queue.

Examples

Then there’s that impressive skill set: barking, whimpering and rolling over on cue. [Wall Street Journal]

There’s a queue every lunchtime outside a particular eaterie in London’s West End, waiting with varying degrees of patience for sandwiches. [Telegraph]

He cued up Mr. Gingrich’s theme music, “Only in America,” by Brooks & Dunn. [New York Times]

There was chaos at Phuket airport today as passengers queued to try to get on alternative flights … [Sydney Morning Herald]

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Comments

  1. “Cue” may mean something equivalent to “queue” (example, one could “line” up Mr. Gingrich’s theme music), but I cannot imagine an instance of “queue” meaning “cue” as “signal.”

  2. Anyone that plays WoW knows what queue means :P

  3. johnakeith says:

    Queue Cue the snow trucks!

  4. Ramona Florea says:

    Cue is not queue. Cue is a ‘good to go’ signal, whilst queue is waiting in line..

    • Queue refers to the line itself, not waiting in it. So they can be similar, or used for a similar purpose. For example, “Cue the antagonists” means essentially to prompt something so that it occurs, while “Queue the antagonists” would mean that its time to get the antagonists in line (presumable so they can…antagonize).

      • GamDroid89 says:

        No, I think you’ll find queue is both a noun (referring you the line) and a verb (referring to waiting in said line). It’s just that in American English, the word cue is used to denote the same as queue does in Standard English. It’s one of the many examples of American English allowing the convergence of spellings in homonyms, usually by accepting the least irregular spelling as acceptable for both or all meanings. Another example occurs with tyre and tire.

        • I suppose I’ve always taken the verb form of the word to mean “form the line” as opposed to “waiting in it”.

          Meaning, a group of scattered individuals moving into a line, is “queuing up”

  5. Reid Malenfant says:

    It’s unambiguous in British English. As a matter of fact only yesterday I took my cue in a queue for Kew Gardens.

  6. “The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.”

    That’s why. TheFreeDictionary is an aggregate. They do NOT publish their own dictionary. TheFreeDictionary provides 3 entries for cue. The first from The American Heritage dictionary, the second from Collins dictionary and the last from Merriam-Webster’s (college edition) dictionary and only the first entry provides cue as a synonym for queue.

  7. William Lucas says:

    I use queue to indicate, in my case, a list of invoices in my queue awaiting process.

  8. korikisulda(コリキ) says:

    There isn’t really much ambiguity in the UK, mostly just because both are in use. I do sometimes see USAmerikan software with this egregious error ._.

    • Markoff Chaney says:

      As in an email queue? Sorry, otaku, but it’s used correctly more often than not. Always enjoy when you foil cappers spell America with a k — that the cue for the kind of looney toon I’m dealing with.

    • Teacher I Am says:

      I love the way you see this as an egregious error. Well done, chap! I always wondered why we spelled enterprise with an “s” but other words, such as standardize with a “z”. I’m sure whoever came up with it just wanted to stick it to the Brits. What do I know. I do fancy the way you talk though…

  9. Teacher I Am says:

    Queue refers to waiting in line. In my experience and the only place I’ve seen it used is in IT. For example, The Print Queue

  10. Lev Raphael says:

    Sinclair Lewis used “cues” for queues” 100 years ago in his novel Babbitt but possibly because he was writing part of the book in London.

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