Often I run across the phrase “one of the only” and grind my teeth a bit. It’s a phrase that almost, but not quite, gets it right.
If there’s just one of something, you can say it’s “the only.”
If there’s a very small number of something, you can say it’s “one of the few.”
But you can’t blend the two phrases and still make sense.
It’s easy to see how the blending takes place. Out of a group of 100 people, there may be only three who saw something happen. You want to describe one of those people. There are only three, and this person is one of them, so you may be tempted to say “one of the only.” That’s soooo close to being correct, which would be “one of only three.”
There are arguments in support of “one of the only,” and of course all of them are wrong. This week I stumbled across one blogger who insisted that he is “just really not that interested” in the topic, and yet proceeded to write 1,200 words about the phrase. His arguments boiled down to “oh, you know what it means.” This is true. I also know what it means if someone says, “I whomped up a mess of taters fer dinner,” but that’s hardly an endorsement.
It’s really a matter of precision. Saying exactly what you mean requires no extra space, and requires only a smidgen more thought, so why do a sloppy job when you don’t have to?