A while back, a fellow editor encountered an instance where someone “pointed out” that one of the only doesn’t make sense and should be one of the few.
Well, geez, who knew it didn’t make sense? I’ve always understood it. It’s a well-established idiom. But some people find it irksome: to them, only can only mean “one” – they may have that as a feature of their personal version of English, but likely they learned it from someone else “pointing it out” – and so for them one of the only is not just wrong but annoying (as “errors” you just learned can seem to be: a reaction that has much more to do with in-group and out-group than with clarity or effective communication).
What there really is here is a failure of analysis. The same sort of analysis leads some people to say anyways is illogical, when in fact the s isn’t a plural, it’s a survival of the genitive. In the case of one of the only, only means “without anything else.” You can say “there are only three people I know who can do this” and it’s not wrong. To say it must mean “one” flies in the face of established usage.
The difference, therefore, is that one of the few focuses on small quantity, while one of the only focuses on limitation. That’s a subtle difference in focus worth preserving.
So, for instance, a waitress at brunch said to me not long ago “This is one of the only new menu items we have.” My wife and I understood it. And the effect would have been different if she had said “one of the few new menu items” or “one of a few new menu items.”
Now, evidently there are some people who do not have this usage in their repertoire, and are resistant to adding it. This would be one of the factors that ensure many varieties of English usage. If you use one of the only you need to be aware that some people may respond adversely to it.
But the argument often made for replacing one of the only with one of the few, that it’s imprecise, is actually holding that it’s more precise to conflate two senses – one focusing on small numbers, the other on limitation and exclusivity – in one form, and to require every expression to focus not on the limitation and exclusivity but on the small number. That seems to me a little bit like legislating the value of pi to be 22/7 for the sake of precision.
Remember: the moment someone starts in on a common word or expression and says it’s not logical, reach for your references and see what bit of linguistic history or understanding the person is overlooking. Also ask yourself exactly when English became a logical and consistent language. (Hint: it never did.)