The word cue references signals, hints, or the stick used for billiard sports. The word queue references sequences, waiting lines, and braided hair.
What is the difference between cue and queue?
Cue and queue are simple words to use, but the differences between American and British English often blur the lines between standard and nonstandard English. No matter where you live, the word cue is a noun and verb that describes:
- A signal, hint, or memory aid (noun) or to provide someone with such (verb).
- A spot in a recording that is ready to play (noun) or playback to a recorded moment (verb).
- The stick we use for billiard or cue sports like pool, snooker, or shuffleboard (noun); or the act of striking a game ball with a cue stick (verb).
Additionally, both American and British English use “queue” as a noun and verb for:
- A line or sequence of things (noun) or the act of joining a line or sequence (verb)
- Braided hair (noun) or the act of braiding hair (verb)
The confusion between cue and queue
The confusion around cue and queue appears to be a miscommunication concerning standard English, appropriate contexts, and, of course, the fact that they are homophones (both are pronounced ‘kew’ or like the letter Q).
For example, The American Heritage Dictionary lists the word cue as a “nonstandard variant” of queue, leading one to think that “cue” is a common misspelling. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Lexico list “queue” as “chiefly British” (for ‘waiting lines’ or ‘to wait’), which may imply that Americans use a nonstandard spelling of queue.
Just in case anyone is confused: if you’re describing a waiting line or sequence of things (especially for computer demands), the only standard spelling is “queue.”
- “Can you see my essay in the print queue?” (not “print cue”)
- “I added your song to my playlist queue.” (not “playlist cue”)
The notion that “queue” is more common for British English involves the fact that Americans are more likely to say “line” than “queue” at all. For example,
- “Let’s wait in line.”
- “Is there a line?
- “Don’t cut the line.”
- “Let’s queue in line.”
- “Is there a queue?”
- “Don’t jump the queue.”
Cuing vs. cueing and queuing vs. queueing
Another source of confusion for cue vs. queue involves the verb’s past participles. In short, the past participle of cue is “cuing” and “cueing,” while the past participle of queue is “queuing” and “queueing.”
The differences between these terms are simple:
- “Cueing” is more common than “cuing” for both American and British English.
- American English prefers “Queuing.”
- “Queueing” is the standard spelling for British English.
If you asked Garner’s Modern English Usage about cuing vs. cueing, you’d read “cueing, not cuing,” and nothing more (Garner 235). Grammarly software also takes a jab at the verb by stating, “The word cuing not in our dictionary.” However, several online dictionaries list “cuing” as a spelling variant, so it’s unclear whether it’s an official misspelling or not.
“Queueing,” on the other hand, is chiefly British. So, if you’re writing for American audiences, it’s best to stick with “queuing.”
What does cue mean?
The noun cue references a verbal or physical hint, signal, or indication (e.g., memory aid, stage direction, or body language). As a verb, cue appears as “cues” (present tense), “cueing” (present participle), or “cued” (past participle).
- “When the director is ready, you’ll see the cue.”
- “Right on cue, the cat returned home.”
- “The director cued the actors to stop and reset.”
- “Students need cueing and support to find success.”
Alternatively, the verb cue also means ‘to position an audio or video recording’ so that it’s ready to play at a specific moment. For example,
- “Cue up The Smiths because we’re watching The Craft.”
- “Can you cue the tape to the five-minute mark?”
Clue, indication, inkling, hint, lead, prompt, prompting, reminder, sign, signal, suggestion.
Did you know?
The word cue is thought to be a spelling of qu, an abbreviation of Latin quando for ‘when’ or qualis ‘in what manner.’
The last definition of cue involves billiard or cue sports such as pool, snooker, or shuffleboard. As a noun, the word cue references the game stick. The verb cue describes the act of striking a cue-ball or puck with the cue.
- “Hand me the cue. I’m ready to break.”
- “You need to chalk the cue.”
- “It’s your turn to cue the ball.”
What does queue mean?
The word queue is a noun or verb that we use to describe a line of people or things in sequential order. As a verb, the term appears as “queues” (present tense), “queuing/queueing” (present participle), or “queued” (past participle).
- “You can prioritize your list of data items in the print queue.”
- “The citizens were angry after reports of queue-jumping from the ultra-wealthy.”
- “Nobody likes people who jump the queue for service.”
- “As soon as the store opened, customers queued up down the block.”
- “The artist’s fans are queuing up online to buy her latest album.”
Column, cue, file, line, range, rank, row, sequence, succession, string, train.
Queue as a hairstyle
The word queue also references a “plait of hair” (noun) or the acting of styling someone’s hair into a long braid (verb). While the hairstyle name is attributed to the 18th century from French queue and Latin cauda for ‘tail,’ it’s mainly associated with a symbolic Manchu hairstyle.
According to history writer Kallie Szczepanski, the Qing Dynasty ordered all Han Chinese men to have a queue (bianzi 辮子), which required them to shave their heads around their temples and leave the remaining hair in a long, trailing braid.
- “Originally a physical expression of submission, the braided queue was also a sign of repression.” — China Heritage Quarterly
- “In the years leading up to the fall of the Qing dynasty, there were many who abandoned the queue as a show of defiance against the Manchu.” — Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences
Braid, pigtail, plait.
Is it “cue up” or “queue up”?
According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, the phrase “cue up” means ‘to prepare a video or audio recording’ so that it is ready to play at a certain point. The phrase “queue up” means ‘to line up’ and wait (Garner 235).
Published examples for “cue up”
- “The part of me that dislikes all my stupid ideas wants Dorothy to turn her brain off for thirty seconds, cue up “Go Your Own Way,” and achieve fleeting animal pleasure.” — The New Yorker
- “It is extremely funny that I keep getting ads for Grammarly that begin, “Writing’s not that easy,” as I cue up this trailer for a show about a professional writer.” — Vogue
Published examples for “queue up”
- “Top global investors queue up for Airtel’s $1.25 billion bond issue.” — Economic Times
- “Vehicles of customers eager for food [and] propane queue up at Bay Area businesses.” — Houston Chronicle
- “Here are 36 podcast recommendations from people who make podcasts — queue up a few and take a walk if you can, or put one on while you’re driving.” — The New York Times
Additional reading for cue vs. queue
If you enjoy learning about homophones like cue and queue, check out The Word Counter’s lessons on:
Test how well you understand the difference between cue and queue with the following multiple-choice questions.
- True or false: “queuing” is more common in American English than “queueing.”
- The noun form of queue does not reference ___________.
b. Waiting lines
c. Sequential order
- Which of the following is the past participle of queue?
- The verb cue means to ___________.
c. Prepare a recording to play on demand
d. All of the above
- Outside of _____________, the word cue is a nonstandard variant of queue.
a. Waiting lines
b. Billiard sports
c. Hair braids
d. Stage prompts
- “Cue.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2021.
- “Cue.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- “Cuing.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 2021.
- Harper, D. “Cue.” Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline.com, 2021.
- Kirsch, M. “What to Do This Weekend.” The New York Times, NYTimes.com, 26 Feb 2021.
- Specter, E. “38 Thoughts I Had While Watching the Sex and the City Reboot Trailer.” Vogue, Vogue.com, 11 Jan 2021.
- Szczepanski, K. “The Queue Hairstyle.” ThoughtCo., Thoughtco.com, 9 May 2019.
- Tolentino, J. “The Depressive Realism of ‘The Life of the Mind.’” The New Yorker, NewYorker.com, 25 Feb 2021.
- “Queue.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
- “Queue.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 2021.