English seems to have several similar-sounding words that have related meanings. Personally, I am having a bit of a problem / difficulty understanding the difference between a clue and a cue (apart from "snooker cues"). My intuition tells me that while the former is more general, the latter is more specific and is limited to gestures or sounds.

I want to know whether the word "cue" always carries the connotation of a forceful, coercive, interaction mode, or whether the imperativeness associated with a cue's call to action is always based upon a preestablished agreement between the person or device issuing the cue and the person responding to such cues.

As an reasonable example, I would like to ask about the exact meaning of the word "cue" in Cued Speech for the Deaf. Why is the speech cued, and not clued?

Take also the audible cues provided by screen readers for the blind such as TalkBack on Android with Explore By Touch enabled. I guess the word here means prompt, but I am not sure about whether it carries any other specific connotations.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary carries the following definitions 2.1.b and 3.1, and I am interested in their direct comparison:

something serving a comparable purpose : hint


to give a cue to : prompt

In response to Andrew's answer:

Similarly, anything can be a cue, as long as it signals meaningful information to someone.

What would that information be needed for, if not to solve a problem. Thus, while a clue is a cue, it also sends to me, that under this definition, a cue would also be a clue.

  • 2
    The problem is that English has lots of similar words that have different roots, and are therefore unrelated. Since the origin of cue is not known, we won't get very far with this particular example. Next!
    – Mick
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 18:32
  • 1
    @Mick: origin unknown? See my answer.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 19:13

5 Answers 5


I suggest you start with the formal definition for each. While both "clue" and "cue" have related meanings, their dictionary definition is not the same:

Clue: A fact or idea that serves to reveal something or solve a problem (e.g. a crime or a puzzle).

Cue: A signal for action (like an actor entering the stage). Also, a piece of information which aids the memory in retrieving details, or indicates a desired course of action.

Really, anything can be a clue, as long as it helps to solve something. Similarly, anything can be a cue, as long as it signals meaningful information to someone. So, more than anything else, the difference is in their individual purpose, and not what they are or who might be involved.

If all that is confusing just remember this: A detective searches for clues; an actor waits for his cue.

  • Ok, so a cue is just a piece of signaled information, but that also means that a cute is a clue to what the signal is about. Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 5:19
  • In case you weren't familiar with the term: overthink :)
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 5:24
  • Over thinking is my characteristic. Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 5:48
  • 1
    If a question contains hints, will they be called clues or cues?
    – user128068
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 6:27

The etymology and meaning of the two words is completely different.

cue (n.1) "stage direction," 1550s, from Q, which was used 16c., 17c. in stage plays to indicate actors' entrances, probably as an abbreviation of Latin quando "when" (see quandary) or a similar Latin adverb. Shakespeare's printed texts have it as both Q and cue.

clue (n.) 1590s, spelling variant of clew "a ball of thread or yarn," in this sense with reference to the one Theseus used as a guide out of the Labyrinth. The purely figurative sense of "that which points the way" is from 1620s. As something which a bewildered person does not have, by 1948.

  • Interesting info about the etymology. What's the source?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 20:45
  • The headwords are both linked to etymonline, @Mari-LouA.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 22:02
  • 2
    Just to clarify. So some users can post answers that talk about the etymology of words on ELL. But questions about etymology is always off topic. I didn't know that.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 22:08

They're not really that closely related in meaning.

A "cue" is a signal to prompt someone to speak or take some other action. It's most often used when talking about acting. Like, "When Sally opens the door, that's your cue to begin your speech." It can be used in other contexts, like, "When I hold two fingers in the air, that's your cue to start the engine."

A "clue" is information that helps to solve a problem or mystery. It's often used when discussing solving crimes. Like, "The detective realized that the position of the glass on the table was an important clue to the identify of the murderer." The word is also used for other sorts of mysteries, like, "I got a subtle clue to why the refrigerator was not working when I saw the power cord lying on the floor, not plugged into anything."

I guess a cue could be considered a kind of clue in a sense. "I'm not sure when I'm supposed to start talking. Maybe you could give me a cue/clue by turning on the lights when it's my turn to speak." Either word would work here, but they don't really mean the same thing. A "cue" is definitive: when you get your cue, you're supposed to take action. A "clue" is a hint. You MIGHT be supposed to take action when you see or hear the clue, but maybe not. It's information to help you come to a conclusion.

  • I've updated my post. I disagree somewhat that cues are always definitive. Just consider the sound cues of screen readers. If I place my finger over a folder, and hear a beep, I might want to respond to the sound cue by opening the folder, or I might not. Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 5:52
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    @JackMaddington By "definitive" I intended to say that a cue is supposed to clearly indicate that it is time to take a certain action. It is not a hint but a direction. Of course you can ignore a cue. And of course the person who invented the cues or who is giving the cues might make a mistake and have ambiguous cues, or give the wrong cue. But the idea of a cue is supposed to be that it is unambiguous.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 2:08
  • I still cannot make out how the person who gives the so called "cue", unless they are a dictator, establish that you must absolutely take action. You say the cue is for a specific unambiguous action and that action must be taken. I don't see where, in "civilized" conversation, that could have a place. Thanks. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 11:52
  • 1
    @JackMaddington No, I agreed with you on that. I said, "Of course you can ignore a cue." Sure, if you give an actor a cue that it's now time to say his line, he might miss the cue. We often use the word "cue" to describe signals that something is ready or available, and a person might or might not take action on it. By "definitive" I meant that a cue says you should or can now take the intended action. Not that maybe you can, but you can. Unlike a clue, which is a maybe.
    – Jay
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 13:36
  • So "can" versus "maybe you can". Thanks. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 19:43

Clue: things that help you guess/solve a mystery.

Cue: something that gives you an indication of something that needs to be done: music cue, cue cards.


To add on Andrew's answer,

"To a detective, a clue can be his cue."

is my way of remembering their differences using one sentence.

This is by no means complete, so still use the definitions first.

  • This is more of a comment than an answer in its own right.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 7:58

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