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From the context of discussion, I took "hard done by" to mean "taken advantage unfair of" as in "He felt hard done by by former friends."

I had never heard the phrase before and have not heard it since. In fact I'm not sure my example sentence is properly constructed using two "by's".

Is it generally Canadian? A Canadian regionalism? Or is it more widely used by non-American English speakers around the world?

EDIT: Does the phrase include the word "by" and then require a second by for proper usage?

If the meaning is akin to "betrayed", then does the sentence "He felt betrayed by his friend" equate to

He felt hard done by his friend ("by" is not part of the phrase)
OR
He felt hard done by by his friend ("by" IS part of the phrase and so needs another by)

Another example, is it:

The situation made him feel hard done
OR
The situation made him feel hard done by

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My girlfriend is from Nottinghamshire, England and uses the expression "hard done to" (same meaning). Example: "Poor thing, feeling hard done to are you?" Outside of Notts, I have only ever heard "hard done by". –  chimp Dec 20 '10 at 8:02
    
@chimp: Yeah, the variant "hard done to" is much less common. If it were found to be exclusive to Notts, that would certainly be of note! –  Jimi Oke Dec 21 '10 at 1:39
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5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Meaning

The chiefly British idiom, feel hard done by or feel hard done-by means "to feel treated unjustly/unfairly". The meaning is not akin to a feeling of betrayal.

Usage

In the idiom, hard done by is an adjectival phrase. So, on further thought, I think the following construction would be grammatically incorrect,

He felt hard done by by former friends.

because it implies the subject complement and the auxiliary can be inserted thus:

He felt he was hard done by by former friends.

This usage is improper, as it treats hard done by as a participial element, which it is not. While some may parse this differently to argue for its correctness, one would be hard-pressed to find the idiom ever used in this way (followed by by). Rather, it is used by itself or in conjunction with an adverbial. I give several examples:

I felt a bit hard done by, going through that rough patch.
They certainly felt hard done by at having their privileges revoked.
Feeling hard done-by, mate?
He tried to cheer me up, but I couldn't help feeling hard done by.
She felt hard done by at having to do the chores while everyone else went to play.
Poor Cinderella must have felt so hard done by when her wicked step-mother denied her permission to go out.
No need to feel hard done by, bro. Every dog has its day.

In your final example, the correct choice would be:

The situation made him feel hard done by.

Prevalence

This idiom is not a Canadian regionalism or colloquialism. It is mainly used in the UK and other English-speaking countries of the Commonwealth, which includes Canada, Australia, India, etc. As such, it is more widely used by non-US speakers.

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It might not be common in the US, but it's certainly not unheard of. :-) –  Hellion Dec 20 '10 at 3:17
    
@Hellion, oh, of course! That's why I used "perhaps"! I'd guess one might hear this in the South or Midwest, or maybe even in Boston... The cool thing about English idioms, regardless of which "dialect" you speak, is a fluent can usually deduce the meaning contextually, as the OP did in their case. –  Jimi Oke Dec 20 '10 at 3:46
    
EDIT: *fluent speaker! –  Jimi Oke Dec 20 '10 at 3:55
    
Edited my answer to completely answer the OP's question and to remove the implication about it's complete non-usage in the US. –  Jimi Oke Dec 20 '10 at 4:13
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A phrase that may be related, which is common enough in American English, is "do right by", which seems to mean the opposite. (see en.wiktionary.org/wiki/do_right_by) –  Andy Jan 24 '11 at 16:04
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‘Hard done by’ is a common and well-understood phrase in the UK, Canada, and most other commonwealth countries.

The usage with the doubled ‘by’ sounds (to my ear) a little ungainly, but not incorrect; and it’s used a reasonable amount in the wild, including (though not only) by professional writers and highly-educated speakers:

Doubtless those on the far reaches of the left are feeling hard done by by the president-elect's cabinet appointments thus far. —Jonathan Leffler, in the Guardian

I wouldn't be surprised if Australia becomes a republic but that is because of a number of factors, including the fact that they feel hard done by by the old country. Sir Robert Worcester, quoted on the BBC website

Grammatically, the parsing is that hard done by is a participial phrase, and hence can take a further by to attribute agency. It comes from a phrasal verb to do hard by (someone), which is no longer idiomatic in itself, but is closely analogous to still-viable phrasal verbs to do well by, or to do right by (meaning: to act well towards someone). For instance:

I trust Jane: she did right by my friends.

We can certainly turn this round into an agentless passive, with no problems:

My friends were done right by.

The trouble comes when we try to attribute agency in this example:

? My friends were done right by by Jane.

This usage seems very rare — google finds only a handful of examples. However, this shows how the grammatical form makes sense; and in the case of ‘hard done by by’, it’s clear that many more people are happy to use the form with the doubled by. I suspect this difference is because “X was done right by by Y” can easily be turned around into the less awkward “Y did right by X”, while in the case of “X was hard done by by Y”, there’s no such obvious alternative, since the form “*Y did hard by X” (or “*Y hard did by X”??) have been lost.

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It is used in Britain as well as Canada.

It means that the person who has been 'hard done by' has been given a hard time or had life made more difficult than it should have been, and probably not directly through their own fault. It could well be that someone else has been unkind or unfair to them; it usually implies a more active agency than pure chance, or just the weather or some other natural phenomenon. You wouldn't normally consider someone who experiences an earthquake as being hard done by; you might consider someone whose house collapsed in an earthquake and whose insurance company declined to pay for the earthquake damage as being hard done by - the agency being the insurance company, not the earthquake.

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To add to PLL's answer, the phrase is "hard done by", and it's AFAIK not grammatically incorrect to add a "by" to it, just ungainly and awkward.

Just going by Google results, there are 49600 results for "hard done by by", and although some are titles, you can see that there are about 91 results in Google Books for "hard done by by", including quite a few from reputable sources. On the other hand, most results for "hard done by his/her/the" involve the last word in a different sentence, or at least not signifying who the person was hard done by by.

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Having spent about half of a pretty long life in each of Canada and the U.S., I'd say it is equally common in both. Like many turns of speech, it may be more prevalent in some regions than others. My mother, who grew up in Oklahoma, used it frequently.

"Ill treated" might be considered a succinct equivalent.

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