Q&A: Cue vs queue

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, cue the “queue & A”…

Q: Phew, sorry I’m late!

A: That’s okay. Where have you been?

Q: I misread a letter from my lawyer and was meditating when I should have been at a mediation.

A: Ummmm.

Q: No, it’s more like “ommmmm”. Anyway, I’m feeling refreshed and have a question for you today.

A: Is it about planting trees when you should be at arbitration?

Q: Haha, funny. No, it’s about “cue” and “queue”. I’ve been chatting with a friend this week and am now a little muddy on it.

A: Okay sure. Is your friend American?

Q: Actually yes.

A: They tend not to use “queue” for a line of people, or anything at all for that matter.

Q: How odd. Well, let’s get started.

A: Okay, so each word has noun forms – a “cue” can be a prompt given off stage in a play, a hint/signal or a stick that you use in pool.

Q: I call them pool noodles.

A: No, not one you use IN the pool. The game of pool. Pockets, eight balls etc.

Q: Pockets and eight balls? Sounds like four pairs of men’s pants.

A: Hilarious. Anyway, for “queue”, it’s what Macquarie Dictionary defines as “a file or line of people, vehicles, etc., waiting in turn to obtain something, enter a place, proceed along a road, etc.”

Q: My Uncle Percy once played in a pool tournament in London’s botanic gardens…

A: This is setting up for something, but we’re not sure what it–

Q: He was in a queue at Kew with his cue.

A: Oh dear. Do you even HAVE an Uncle Percy?

Q: No actually. He’s now my Aunty Caitlyn.

A: So anyway, it’s once we get to the verbs that things get foggy. So we would say that you “queue up” for the latest iPhone, but a DJ would “cue up” the next song. Cues are prompts. Queues are lines.

Q: But what about if I want to line up a meeting? Do I queue it up or cue it up?

A: This is probably the one people struggle with. You would CUE up a meeting. It’s not a physical line. It’s like cueing up music or video to play.

Q: Okay, but if I have a queue of songs to play, do I still “cue” them up?

A: Yes.

Q: And if I have excellent timing, then I arrive “right on cue”?

A: Yes. It’s actually fairly sim–

Q: I have excellent timing.

A: Right. Anyway, it’s actually fairly simple to remember that anything to do with people or things waiting in line for something is a “queue” – such as jobs waiting in a “print queue” or people in a bank queue. And that you can be in a queue (noun) as well as queue (verb) for something.

Q: And that’s it for queue? Every other iteration is “cue”?

A: Yes. The Americans have muddied things which is why we occasionally see “cue” appear in place of “queue” when it shouldn’t.

Q: Que?

A: Nice Spanish. Here’s an example. The expression “to take a cue from something” should always be spelt this way and never as “the product took a queue from Apple” or similar.

Q: Hear hear!

A: Actually, speaking of hair hair – a now obsolete term for a long hair braid was known as a “queue” or “cue” – probably the only time we’d say the two words can overlap in meaning.

Q: And finally, can you use all the meanings in a sentence that includes AWC founder Valerie Khoo?

A: Certainly. As if on cue, CEO Valerie Khoo picked up the cue and joined her COO in the queue waiting for their cue in a play about a pigeon that stages a coup while attempting to coo.

Q: Brilliant thanks. Okay, that’s my cue to leave. I have a hearing with my lawyer so I need to go and buy some decent headphones…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like us to explore, email it to us today!


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