Q&A: Cue vs queue

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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