Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

We hear words all the time. We hear them in casual conversation, on television, and in public places. However, just because we hear these words does not mean that we know how to spell them, particularly when there are words that sound exactly the same while having vastly different meanings.

These homophones can be incredibly confusing. One such homophone pair is queue and cue. They’re both pronounced the same way, but they do not have the same meaning. In this way, you should be careful about which word you choose to write under which circumstances. Both queue and cue can be used as both nouns and verbs, causing possibly even further confusion.

Cue, as a noun, is a signal to begin. In the context of a stage play, for example, one actor’s cue to begin his soliloquy is when the spotlight is cast on him. Similarly, to cue (as a verb) refers to the act of providing this signal to begin. To cue is to prompt. When you tell someone to “cue the music,” you are telling them to “start the music now.”

Queue, as a noun, refers to a lineup. This usually implies a group of people waiting in line, as would be the case at the cash register at a supermarket. However, it can also refer to things other than people. For example, comments on this blog can sometimes be held in the moderation queue, waiting for approval. A queue is a line handled on a first come, first served basis.

Similarly, the verb to queue means to form or join this lineup. It can also mean to arrange people (or things) in a certain order. Going back to the example above, you could also tell someone to “queue the music.” This has quite a different meaning from “cue the music,” however. With “queue the music,” you are likely telling someone to organize the song list in a certain order. You are telling them to set up the “queue” of tracks. You are not telling them to “start the music now.”

Do you have a suggestion for a future Grammar 101 post? Let me know and I’ll add it to the queue of topics. If I happen to forget your suggestion, don’t hesitate to give me the cue too.