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I have read the following sentence in an Italian learning tool:

Penseranno solo alla partita e non ad altro.

I suppose that "altro" here is a noun and it means "altre cose" ("non ad altro" = "a nient'altro"). Is that right? If so, is it more usual than the alternative that I provided?

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Altro can be either an adjective or a pronoun. It comes from Latin alter (also adjective and pronoun), meaning “the second of two”. In this case we're talking about the pronoun.

In Italian it has a more general usage, but always denotes some opposition between a single entity, which might be a group, and the rest: gli uni…, gli altri…, io…, gli altri. For instance

Metà di voi qua vadano,
e gli altri vadan là,
e pian pianin lo cerchino

(here Don Giovanni, disguised as Leporello, is dividing the group of peasants who are looking for him, so as to remain alone with Masetto and beat him).

In this usage the pronoun is almost always preceded by the article (exception: if a ne specifier precedes it).

When altro (masculine and singular) is not preceded by the article it is the same as the English else, so your conjecture that nient'altro can be used in place of non ad altro is correct. Here the opposition is between the game and everything else.

Note, however, that else needs some specifier, such as something, anything or nothing, whereas altro doesn't; here no specifier is needed, but it could be qualcosa in other contexts: ti serve altro? can also be ti serve qualcos'altro?. In this case, altro is “absolute” (corresponding to anything else), so no specifier.

The article in the Treccani dictionary is really clear about the matter.

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Your supposition is correct; The two sentences IMO are used in the same way.

The difference in translation could be:

Penseranno solo alla partita e non ad altro

They will think about the game and not about something else.

Penseranno solo alla partita e a nient'altro

They will think about the game and nothing else.

If I have to find a very thin difference between the two (consider this my personal opinion), I'd say that the first sentence is a "softer" way to say the same thing of the second one as "Niente" means "Nothing" and somehow categorically excludes that there will be other thoughts.

But,as I said, the difference is thin.

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