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I briefly search 'than they would be if ...' on Google, but nothing interesting relevant shows up upon a glimpse. Here's an example sentence:

Proof-of-concept technologies, although important, are less valuable than they would be if they were supported by careful experiments that identify key attributes of the design or principles that span applications.

My understanding is it's saying that it's more valuable if they are supported by experiments. My understanding of using 'than' is that it compares two things, A bigger than B, etc; here a subsentence goes after than, instead of just a noun. Is this a special usage of than? What type of grammar or sentence structure is 'something than they would be ...' called?

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It's no special grammar.

"They" in "than they would be" refers to "Proof-of-concept technologies". So it is saying that

Proof-of-concept technologies [as they are] ... are less valuable than they [i.e. proof-of-concept technologies] would be if ...

So yes, your interpretation is right.

  • I updated my question. Here's the addition: My understanding of using 'than' is that it compares two things, A bigger than B, etc; here, a substance goes after than, instead of just a noun. Is this a special usage of than? – drerD Jan 14 at 2:41
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    @drerD There is no particular grammatical unit that needs to go before or after than. It doesn't need to be a noun, just two different things. I run faster than I walk., for instance. But note that they is a pronoun, which stands in place of a noun. So, in this particular case, what comes after they is actually referencing a noun. As stated in the answer, it's referencing proof-of-concept technologies. The same noun, but now being qualified by an adjectival phrase. It's also not clear what you mean by substance. There is nothing special or unusual about the use of than here. – Jason Bassford Jan 14 at 5:51
  • I meant to write subsentence. – drerD Jan 14 at 6:28
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Proof-of-concept technologies, although important, are less valuable than they would be if they were supported by careful experiments that identify key attributes of the design or principles that span applications.

You are right. The expression in bold is a comparative clause serving as complement of the preposition “than”. Within that clause is the conditional adjunct “if they were supported by careful experiments that identify key attributes of the design or principles that span applications”.

We understand: "proof-of-concept technologies are x valuable; proof-of-concept technologies are y valuable if they were supported … ; x < y"

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