Do you know when to use cue or queue in a sentence? They’re both homophones so you have to be careful when you choose.
When you face a choice of words like cue or queue, you’re dealing with a tricky part of English we call homophones. Homophones are commonly confused words. They sound the same — in this case, they’re both pronounced like the letter Q. But we spell them differently and they have different meanings.
That means that you have less to worry about in spoken English. But when it comes to written English, that’s when a wrong choice can make you look bad.
So here’s a look at the two words:
Cue can function as a noun or a verb. As a noun, it serves as a signal to do something. A stage manager will cue a performer to make a move. A director will cue a cameraman to make a move in a studio. You can observe someone and spot visual cues in their face as they react to things. Many a murder mystery has been solved by a sharp-eyed detective who picked up on such cues.
I have to recommend a highly entertaining book on the English language by Benjamin Dreyer: Dreyer’s English. He points to an infamous cue from the theater that served as a world-changing moment. It was moment a character in a play called “Our American Cousin” called another character, “You sockdologizing old man-trap.” That line served as cue for presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth to fire a shot at Abraham Lincoln, who was attending that play at Ford’s Theatre in April of 1865. Booth chose that line because the large laugh expected from it would help muffle the sound of the gunshot.
As a verb, to cue someone means to provide that type of signal. You can also “cue up” something to prepare to play it, particularly in the days of audio or videotape. With vinyl making a comeback, a DJ can cue up a song on an old (or new) record. A sound designer or Foley artist may “cue in” sound effects into a production. That simply means they’re adding audio signals into a production to enhance it. They will usually add the sound effects at a specific point when the director (or the script) cues them to do so.
Queue can also function as a noun or a verb. As a noun, it has two primary meanings. The lesser-known refers to braided hair. The meaning you surely have encountered at some point, however, is a line of people waiting for something. It doesn’t have to refer specifically to people standing in line for their turn. It can also refer to calls at a telephone center waiting to be answered or messages left for people.
As a verb, to queue — or more commonly, to queue up — is to get in line.
“‘Queue’ was, not long ago, a terribly British verb, and for Americans to say that they were ‘queuing up’ for this or that was the height of pretension,” Dreyer writes. “I’m not certain when the term arrived in the United States, but it certainly seems to have its green card by now.”
It’s perfectly acceptable to say “line up” rather than “cue up” if you aren’t British. Some people will see the alternative just as Dreyer does: “the height of pretension.” You might be better off not trying to sound so fancy if doing so will distract the reader from what you’re trying to say.
After all, no one wants to stand in line anyway. We certainly don’t want to stand in a pretentious one!