As a very general proposition, capital crimes are usually reserved for murder

quoted from CNN student news

I looked up the phrase 'reserve' in the Merriam Webster dictionary.

: to make arrangements so that you will be able to use or have (something, such as a room, table, or seat) at a later time

: to keep (something) for a special or future use

: to choose to do (something) at a later time

The definition I found doesn't correspond or match well in the sentence I quoted.

I guess the sentence's meaning is that generally we think murder as a main or representative type of capital crimes.

Could you help me understand the meaning of the phrase "be reserved for" in this sentence?

  • Are you sure it says "crimes"? It sounds like a weird sentence to me. Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 11:18
  • Never mind, I found it Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 11:19

2 Answers 2


It's sloppy speech. With more time to think, or in writing, the speaker probably would have said:

Capital punishment is usually reserved for murder.

The mistaken wording probably arose because the speaker was trying to refer to the way that capital crimes are defined, but it's hard to think of a way to say this without clumsy grammar. By the time he's said "capital crimes" as the subject of the sentence, he's in trouble:

"Capital crimes are usually" (thinking…) defined so that…only murder can be a capital crime. (Oh, no, that would sound stupid. What's another way to say this?) The definitions of capital crimes are usually very strict: that category is normally reserved for serious crimes like murder. (But I already said "Capital crimes are usually". How do I get out of this? Uh…) "reserved for murder…and not just murder" (I need something stronger, to illustrate my point that we don't define just any small crime as a capital crime) "but murder plus some additional facts that make it particularly egregious." (There, that was technically wrong but I blabbered enough dignified-sounding words after my mistake that people probably won't notice.)

The relevant sense of reserved is the second one you listed, which is a metaphorical extension of the first sense. The idea is that capital punishment is the "last resort" in criminal penalties. Metaphorically, we have many criminal penalties, varying in severity from community service to paying a fine to a short prison sentence to a long prison sentence to death. We "save" death as a punishment for only the worst crimes, as if the death penalty were like expensive silverware that we use only on special occasions.


I read the transcript it comes from, and the most fitting is definition #2: to keep something for a special use

The death penalty is reserved for murder i.e., it is an option ONLY in case of murder and not just murder, but murder plus some additional facts that make it particularly egregious [cit.]

Now, the use of "crime" seems a bit awkward to me. The closest I can get to is Capital Offense, but it makes way more sense with "Punishment". CNN probably knows English better than I do, so I'll wait for some native to drop in and explain that part to me.

  • +1 I'd choose "are (only) kept for" as the explanation, too. Note that capital crime has a specific meaning: "crime for which the punishment is death" Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 11:31

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