Lua programming/Standard libraries

Lua is a language that is said to "not be provided with batteries". This means that its library are kept to the minimum necessary to do some stuff with Lua. Lua relies on its community to create libraries that can be used to perform more specific tasks. There are ten libraries available in Lua. The Lua Reference Manual provides documentation for all the libraries[1], so they will only be briefly described here. All the libraries except the basic and the package libraries provide their functions and values as fields of a table.

Basic libraryEdit

The basic library provides core functionality to Lua. All its functions and values are directly available in the global environment, and all functions and values available directly in the global environment by default are part of the basic library.


An assertion is a predicate that is assumed by the developer to be true. They are used in programs to ensure that a specific condition is true at a specific moment of the execution of a program. Assertions are used in unit tests to verify that a program works correctly, but are also used in program code, in which case the program will fail when an assertion is false, either to verify that the environment in which the program is correct, or to verify that no error was made in program code and to generate appropriate error messages to make it easier to find bugs in the code when something doesn't happen as expected. In Lua, assertions are made with the assert function, which accepts a condition and a message (which will default to "assertion failed!") as parameters. When the condition evaluates to false, assert throws an error with the message. When it evaluates to true, assert returns all its arguments.

Garbage collectionEdit

Garbage collection is a form of automatic memory management implemented by Lua and many other languages. When a program needs to store data in a variable, it asks the operating system to allocate space in the computer's memory to store the variable's value. Then, when it doesn't need the space anymore (generally because the variable fell out of scope), it tells the operating system to deallocate the space so that another program may use it. In Lua, the actual process is much more complex, but the basic idea is the same: the program must tell the operating system when it doesn't need a variable's value anymore. In low level languages, allocation is handled by the language, but deallocation is not because the language cannot know when a programmer doesn't need a value anymore: even if a variable that referenced the value fell out of scope or was removed, another variable or a field in a script may still reference it, and deallocating it would cause problems. In higher level languages, deallocation may be handled by various automatic memory management systems, such as garbage collection, which is the system used by Lua. The garbage collector regularly searches through all the values allocated by Lua for values that are not referenced anywhere. It will collect values that the program cannot access anymore (because there is no reference to them) and, since it knows that these values can safely be deallocated, will deallocate them. This is all done transparently and automatically, so the programmer does not generally need to do anything about it. However, sometimes, the developer may want to give instructions to the garbage collector.

Weak referencesEdit

Weak references are references that are ignored by the garbage collector. These references are indicated to the garbage collector by the developer, using the mode metamethod. A table's mode metamethod should be a string. If that string contains the letter "k", all the keys of the table's fields are weak, and if it contains the letter "v", all the values of the table's fields are weak. When an array of objects has weak values, the garbage collector will collect these objects even if they are referenced in that array, as long as they are only referenced in that array and in other weak references. This behavior is sometimes useful, but rarely used.

Manipulating the garbage collectorEdit

The garbage collector may be manipulated with the collectgarbage function, which is part of the basic library and serves as an interface to the garbage collector. Its first argument is a string that indicates to the garbage collector what action should be performed; a second argument is used by some actions. The collectgarbage function can be used to stop the garbage collector, manually perform collection cycles and count the memory used by Lua.


Coroutines are computer program components that generalize subroutines to allow multiple entry points for suspending and resuming execution at certain locations. Coroutines are well-suited for implementing more familiar program components such as cooperative tasks, exceptions, event loop, iterators, infinite lists and pipes.
—Wikipedia, Coroutine

Coroutines are components that can be created and manipulated with the coroutine library in Lua and that allow the yielding and resuming of the execution of a function at specific locations by calling functions that yield the coroutine from inside of itself or that resume it from outside of itself. Example:

  1. A function in the main thread creates a coroutine from a function with coroutine.create and resumes it with coroutine.resume, to which the number 3 is passed.
  2. The function in the coroutine executes and gets the number passed to coroutine.resume as an argument.
  3. The function arrives at a certain point in its execution where it calls coroutine.yield with, as an argument, the sum of the argument it received (3) and 2 (hence, 3+2=5).
  4. The call to coroutine.resume returns 5, because it was passed to coroutine.yield, and the main thread, now running again, stores that number in a variable. It resumes the coroutine again after having executed some code, passing to coroutine.resume the double of the value it has received from the call to coroutine.resume (i.e. it passes 5×2=10).
  5. The coroutine gets the value passed to coroutine.resume as the result of the call to coroutine.yield and terminates after running some more code. It returns the difference between the result of the call to coroutine.yield and the value it was given as a parameter initially (i.e. 10−3=7).
  6. The main thread gets the value returned by the coroutine as the result of the call to coroutine.resume and goes on.

This example, put in code, gives the following:

local co = coroutine.create(function(initial_value)
	local value_obtained = coroutine.yield(initial_value + 2) -- 3+2=5
	return value_obtained - initial_value -- 10-3=7
local _, initial_result = coroutine.resume(co, 3) -- initial_result: 5
local _, final_result = coroutine.resume(co, initial_result * 2) -- 5*2=10
print(final_result) --> 7

The coroutine.create function creates a coroutine from a function; coroutines are values of type "thread". coroutine.resume starts or continues the execution of a coroutine. A coroutine is said to be dead when it has encountered an error or has nothing left to run (in which case it has terminated its execution). When a coroutine is dead, it cannot be resumed. The coroutine.resume function will return true if the execution of the coroutine was successful, along with all the values returned, if the coroutine has terminated, or passed to coroutine.yield if it has not. If the execution was not successful, it will return false along with an error message. coroutine.resume returns the running coroutine and true when that coroutine is the main thread, or false otherwise.

The coroutine.status function returns the status of a coroutine as a string:

  • "running" if the coroutine is running, which means it must be the coroutine which called coroutine.status
  • "suspended" if the coroutine is suspended in a call to yield or if it has not started running yet
  • "normal" if the coroutine is active but not running, which means it has resumed another coroutine
  • "dead" if the coroutine has finished running or has encountered an error

The coroutine.wrap function returns a function that resumes a coroutine every time it is called. Extra arguments given to this function will act as extra arguments to coroutine.resume and values returned by the coroutine or passed to coroutine.yield will be returned by a call to the function. The coroutine.wrap function, unlike coroutine.resume, does not call the coroutine in protected mode and propagates errors.

There are many use cases for coroutines, but describing them are outside the scope of this book.

String matchingEdit

When manipulating strings, it is frequently useful to be able to search strings for substrings that follow a certain pattern. Lua has a string manipulation library that offers functions for doing this and a notation for expressing patterns that the functions can search for in strings. The notation offered by Lua is very similar to regular expressions, a notation for expressing patterns used by most languages and tools in the programming world. However, it is more limited and has slightly different syntax.

The find function of the string library looks for the first match of a pattern in a string. If it finds an occurrence of the pattern in the string, it returns the indices in the string (integers representing the position of characters in the string starting from the first character, which is at position 1) where the occurrence starts and ends. If it doesn't find an occurrence of the pattern, it returns nothing. The first parameter it accepts is the string, the second being the pattern and the third being an integer indicating the character position where the find function should start searching. Finally, the find function can be told to perform a simple match without patterns by being given the value true as its fourth argument. It will then simply search for an occurrence of the second string it is given in the first string. The third argument must be given when a simple match is performed. This example code searches for the word "lazy" in a sentence and prints the start and end positions of the occurrence it finds of the word:

local start_position, end_position = string.find("The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.", "lazy", 1, true)
print("The word \"lazy\" was found starting at position " .. start_position .. " and ending at position " .. end_position .. ".")

This code gives the result The word "lazy" was found starting at position 36 and ending at position 39.. It is equivalent to the following:

local sentence = "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."
local start_position, end_position = sentence:find("lazy", 1, true)
print("The word \"lazy\" was found starting at position " .. start_position .. " and ending at position " .. end_position .. ".")

This works because the index metamethod of strings is set to the table containing the functions of the string library, making it possible to replace string.a(b, ...) by b:a(...).

Functions in the string library that accept indices to indicate character position or that return such indices consider the first character as being at position 1. They accept negative numbers and interpret them as indexing backwards, from the end of the string, with the last character being at position -1.

Patterns are strings that follow a certain notation to indicate a pattern that a string may match or not. For this purpose, patterns contain character classes, combinations that represent sets of characters.

Character combination Description
. All characters
 %a Letters (uppercase and lowercase)
 %c Control characters
 %d Digits
 %g Printable characters (except the space character)
 %l Lowercase letters
 %p Punctuation characters
 %s Space characters
 %u Uppercase letters
 %w Alphanumeric characters (digits and letters)
 %x Hexadecimal digits

All characters that are not special represent themselves and special characters (all characters that are not alphanumeric) can be escaped by being prefixed by a percentage sign. Character classes can be combined to create bigger character classes by being put in a set. Sets are noted as character classes noted between square brackets (i.e. [%xp] is the set of all hexadecimal characters plus the letter "p"). Ranges of characters can be noted by separating the end characters of the range, in ascending order, with a hyphen (i.e. [0-9%s] represents all the digits from 0 to 9 plus space characters). If the caret ("^") character is put at the start of the set (right after the opening square bracket), the set will contain all characters except those it would have contained if that caret had not been put at the start of the set.

The complement of all classes represented by a letter preceded of a percentage sign can be noted as a percentage sign followed by the corresponding uppercase letter (i.e. %S represents all characters except space characters).

Patterns are sequences of pattern items that represent what sequences should be found in the pattern for a string to match it. A pattern item can be a character class, in which case it matches any of the characters in the class once, a character class followed by the "*" character, in which case it matches 0 or more repetitions of characters in the class (these repetition items will always match the longest possible sequence), a character class followed by the addition ("+") character, in which case it matches 1 or more repetitions of characters in the class (these repetition items will also always match the longest possible sequence), a character class followed by the minus ("-") character, in which case it matches 0 or more repetitions of characters in the class, but matches the shortest possible sequence or a character class followed by an interrogation mark, in which case it matches one or no occurrence of a character in the class.

It is possible to match substrings equivalent to previously captured substrings: %1 will match the first captured substring, %2 the second, and so on until %9. Captures are described below. There are two other functionalities offered by patterns, as described by the reference manual:

%bxy, where x and y are two distinct characters; such item matches strings that start with x, end with y, and where the x and y are balanced. This means that, if one reads the string from left to right, counting +1 for an x and -1 for a y, the ending y is the first y where the count reaches 0. For instance, the item %b() matches expressions with balanced parentheses.

%f[set], a frontier pattern; such item matches an empty string at any position such that the next character belongs to set and the previous character does not belong to set. The set set is interpreted as previously described. The beginning and the end of the subject are handled as if they were the character '\0'.

—Lua authors, Lua 5.2 Reference Manual

Patterns are sequences of pattern items, optionally preceded by a caret, which indicates that the pattern can only match at the beginning of the string, and optionally followed by a dollar sign, which indicates that the pattern can only match at the end of the string. These symbols are said to anchor the match at the beginning or the end of the string. These two characters only have a special meaning when at the beginning or at the end of a pattern.

Sub-patterns can be enclosed inside parentheses inside patterns to indicate captures. When a match succeeds, the substrings of the string that match captures are stored for future use, for example to be returned by gmatch. They are always numbered starting from the position of their left parenthesis. Two empty parentheses denote the empty capture, which captures the current string position (which is a number and is not a part of the string).

The gmatch function can be used to iterate through the occurrences of a pattern in a string; it is not possible, unlike with the find function, to specify an initial position to start searching or to perform simple matching. The gmatch function returns an iterator that, when called, returns the next captures from the given pattern in the string. The whole match is given instead if there are no captures specified in the pattern. The following example shows how to iterate through the words in a sentence and print them one by one:

local sentence = "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."
for word in sentence:gmatch('%a+') do

In this example, the entire match is given by the only value returned by the iterator, word.

The gsub function can be used to replace all occurrences of a pattern in a string by something else. Its first two arguments are the string and the pattern, while the third is the string to replace occurrences by and the fourth is the maximum number of occurrences that should be replaced. The third argument, instead of being a string, can also be a table or a function.

When the third argument is a string, it is called the replacement string and it replaces occurrences of the pattern in the string. Captures stored by the pattern can be embedded in the replacement string; they are noted by a percentage sign followed by a digit representing the number of the capture. The match itself can be represented by %0. Percentage signs in replacement strings must be escaped as %%.

When the third argument is a table, the first capture is used as a key to index that table and the replacement string is the value corresponding to that key in the table. When it is a function, that function is called for every match, with all captures passed as arguments. In both cases, if there is no capture, the entire match is used instead. If the function or table gives the value false or nil, no replacement is done.

Here are some examples taken directly from the Lua 5.2 Reference Manual:

x = string.gsub("hello world", "(%w+)", "%1 %1")
--> x="hello hello world world"
x = string.gsub("hello world", "%w+", "%0 %0", 1)
--> x="hello hello world"
x = string.gsub("hello world from Lua", "(%w+)%s*(%w+)", "%2 %1")
--> x="world hello Lua from"
x = string.gsub("home = $HOME, user = $USER", "%$(%w+)", os.getenv)
--> x="home = /home/roberto, user = roberto"
x = string.gsub("4+5 = $return 4+5$", "%$(.-)%$", function (s)
      return load(s)()
--> x="4+5 = 9"
local t = {name="lua", version="5.2"}
x = string.gsub("$name-$version.tar.gz", "%$(%w+)", t)
--> x="lua-5.2.tar.gz"
—Lua authors, Lua 5.2 Reference Manual

Lua offers other functions for manipulating strings than those for pattern matching. These include the reverse function, which returns a string with the order of the characters reversed, the lower function, which returns the lowercase equivalent of a string, the upper function, which returns the uppercase equivalent of a string, the len function, which returns the length of a string and the sub function, which returns the substring of a string that starts at and ends at the two character positions given as arguments. There are more, and their documentation can be found in the Lua 5.2 Reference Manual.


  1. Ierusalimschy, Roberto; Celes, Waldemar; Henrique de Figueiredo, Luiz. Lua 5.2 Reference Manual. Retrieved 30 November 2013. 
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Last modified on 7 February 2014, at 05:12