Lua programming/Tables

Tables are the only data structure in Lua, but they are more flexible than the data structures in many other languages. They are also called dictionaries (because they make values correspond to indices, as the definitions in a dictionary correspond to the terms), associative arrays (because they associate values to indices, thus making them be arrays of values that are associated to indices), hash tables, symbol tables, hash maps and maps. They are created using tables constructors, which are defined by two braces that may optionally contain values separated by commas or semicolons. The following example demonstrates an array (an ordered list of values) and demonstrates how an array's length can be obtained.

local array = {5, "text", {"more text", 463, "even more text"}, "more text"}
print(#array) --> 4 ; the # operator for strings can also be used for arrays, in which case it will return the number of values in the array
-- This example demonstrates how tables can be nested in other tables. Since tables themselves are values, tables can include other tables. Arrays of tables are called multi-dimensional arrays.

Tables may contain values of any type except nil. This is logical: nil represents the absence of a value. Inserting "the absence of a value" in a table wouldn't make sense. Values in tables may be separated either by commas or semicolons, and they may continue on many lines. It is common to use commas for single-line table constructors and semicolons for multi-line tables, but this is not necessary.

local array = {
		"more text, in a nested table";
	true -- booleans can also be in tables

Tables are composed of fields, which are pairs of values, one of which is a index (also called a key) the other being the value that corresponds to that index. In arrays, the indices are always numerical values. In dictionaries, the indices can be any value.

local dictionary = {
	text = "more text";
	[8] = {}; -- an empty table
	func = function() print("tables can even contain functions!") end;
	["1213"] = 1213

As the example above illustrates, values can be added to a dictionary like they are in arrays with just the value (in which case the index will be a number), with an identifier and an equal sign prefixing the value (in which case the index will be the string that corresponds to the identifier) or with a value enclosed in parentheses and an equal sign prefixing the value (in which case the index is the value in parentheses). The latter is the most flexible way to make an index correspond to a value because it can be used with any value or expression.

It is possible to access a value in a table by putting the index the value corresponds to inside brackets, after an expression that evaluates to the table:

local dictionary = {number = 6}
print(dictionary["number"]) --> 6

If the index is a string which follows the criteria for Lua identifiers (it doesn't contain spaces, start with a number or contain anything else than numbers, letters and underscores), it can be accessed without brackets, by prefixing the string with a dot:

local dictionary = {["number"] = 6}
print(dictionary.number) --> 6

The two previous examples create an identical table and print the same value, but define and access the indices using different notations. It is also possible, in the case of tables that contain other tables to access a value that is inside the nested table by first indexing the first table to get the nested table, and then indexing the value inside of the nested table:

local nested_table = {
	[6] = {
		func = function() print("6") end
nested_table[6].func() -- This will access the nested table, access the function that is inside it and then call that function, which will print the number 6.

Foreach loopEdit

The chapter on statements described two types of loops: condition-controlled loops and count-controlled loops. In Lua, there is a third type of loop, the foreach loop, which is also called the generic for loop. A foreach loop is a loop that allows the programmer to execute code for each field in a table. The example below demonstrates a foreach loop that traverses the items in an array of numbers and prints all the indices and the sum of the values that correspond to them with the number one:

local array = {5, 2, 6, 3, 6}
for index, value in next, array do
	print(index .. ": " .. value + 1)
-- Output:
-- 1: 6
-- 2: 3
-- 3: 7
-- 4: 4
-- 5: 7

The two loops in the following example will do the same thing as the loop in the previous example.

local array = {5, 2, 6, 3, 6}
for index, value in pairs(array) do
	print(index .. ": " .. value + 1)
for index, value in ipairs(array) do
	print(index .. ": " .. value + 1)

The method shown in the first example does the same thing as the first loop in the previous example. However, the last one (the one that uses the ipairs function) will only iterate up to the first integer key absent from the table, which means it will only iterate through numerical values that are in order as they are in an array. There are also two functions called table.foreach and table.foreachi. You might encounter them, but they should be avoided because they are deprecated. Deprecation is a status applied to a feature or practice to indicate that it has been removed or superseded and that it should be avoided. Using the foreach loop to traverse tables is therefore preferable to using these two functions.

Unpacking tablesEdit

In Lua, a distinction is made between a tuple, a simple list of values, and a table, a data structure that maps indices to values. A function call to a function that returns many values evaluates to a tuple. A list of values in an assignment statement where many variables are assigned at once is also a tuple. The vararg expression, which is used in variadic functions, is also a tuple. Because a tuple is a list of values and therefore not a single value, it cannot be stored in a variable, although it can be stored in many variables. It is possible to convert a tuple into an array by putting the expression that evaluates to the tuple in a table constructor.

function return_tuple()
	return 5, 6 -- Because this function returns two values, a function call to it evaluates to a tuple.
local array = {return_tuple()} -- same as local array = {5, 6}
local a, b = return_tuple() -- same as local a, b = 5, 6
print(return_tuple()) -- same as print(5, 6)

It is possible to unpack an array (change it from a table to a tuple) by using the unpack function of the table library with the array as an argument:

local array = {7, 4, 2}
local a, b, c = table.unpack(array)
print(a, b, c) --> 7, 4, 2

In Lua versions preceding Lua 5.2, the unpack function was part of the basic library. It has since been moved to the table library.


Because tables can contain functions and associate a name to these functions, they will often be used to create libraries. Lua also has syntactic sugar that can be used to create methods, functions that are used to manipulate an object, which will generally be represented by the table. This might be a bit hard to understand to someone who doesn't know about object-oriented programming, which is out of the scope of this book, so there's nothing wrong with not understanding the purpose of this. The two examples below do exactly the same thing:

local object = {}
function object.func(self, arg1, arg2)
	print(arg1, arg2)
object.func(object, 1, 2) --> 1, 2
local object = {}
function object:func(arg1, arg2)
	print(arg1, arg2)
object:func(1, 2) --> 1, 2

When calling a function that is in a table and that corresponds to a index that is a string, using a colon instead of a dot will add a hidden argument which is the table itself. Similarly, defining a function in a table using a colon instead of a dot will add a hidden self parameter in the parameter list. Usage of a colon to define the function doesn't mean a colon must also be used to call the function and vice-versa, because these are completely interchangeable.


Sorting tables in Lua can be relatively trivial. In most cases, the sort function of the table library can be used to sort tables, which makes everything relatively easy. The sort function sorts elements of an array in a given order, in-place (i.e. without creating a new array). If a function is provided as a second argument, it should receive two elements of the array and return true when the first element should come before the second in the final order. If no second argument is provided, Lua will sort the elements in the array according to the < operator, which returns true when used with two numbers and when the first number is smaller than the second, but which also works with strings, in which case it returns true when the first string comes before the other in an manner similar to alphabetical order but including other characters as well.


Metatables are tables that can be used to control the behavior of other tables. This is done through metamethods, fields in that table which indicate to the Lua virtual machine what should be done when code attempts to manipulate the table in specific ways. Metamethods are defined by their name. The index metamethod, for example, tells Lua what to do when code attempts to index in a table a field that doesn't exist yet. A table's metatable can be set using the setmetatable function, which accepts two table as arguments, the first table being the table of which the metatable should be set, and the second being the metatable to which the table's metatable should be set. There is also a getmetatable function, which returns the metatable of a table. The following code demonstrates how a metatable could be used to make all non-existent fields in a table appear as if they contained a number; these numbers are generated randomly, using the math.random function:

local associative_array = {
	defined_field = "this field is defined"
setmetatable(associative_array, {
	__index = function(self, index)
		return math.random(10)

There are many things that may be noticed in the above example. One of the things that may be noticed is that the name of the field containing the index metamethod is prefixed with two underscores. This is always the case: when Lua looks in a table's metatable for metamethods, it looks for indices that correspond to the name of a metamethod and that start with two underscores. Another thing that may be noticed is that the index metamethod is in fact a function (most metamethods are functions, but not all are), which takes two arguments. The first argument, self, is the table of which the index metamethod was invoked. In the case here, we could just refer directly to the associative_array variable, but this is useful when a single metatable is used for many tables. The second argument is the index that was attempted to be indexed. Finally, it can be noted that the function tells the Lua virtual machine what should be given to the code that indexed the table by returning a value. Most metamethods can only be functions, but the index metamethod can also be a table. If it is a table, Lua will, when a program attempts to index a field of the table that doesn't exist, look in that table for the same index. If it finds it, it will return the value corresponding to that index in the table that is specified in the index metamethod.

newindex(self, index, value)
The newindex metamethod can be used to tell the Lua virtual machine what to do when a program attempts to add a new field in a table. It may only be a function, and it will only be called if there isn't already a field with the index to which the program attempts to write. It has three arguments: the first two are the same as the arguments of the index metamethod, and the third is the value that the program attempted to set the value of the field to.
concat(self, value)
The concat metamethod can be used to tell the Lua virtual machine what to do when a program attempts to concatenate a value to the table, using the concatenation operator (..).
call(self, ...)
The call metamethod can be used to specify what should happen when a program attempts to call the table. This makes it possible to indeed make a table behave as if it was a function. The arguments passed when the table was called are given after the self argument, which is the table itself, as always. This metamethod can be used to return values, in which case calling the table will return these values.
This metamethod can be used to specify the effect of using the unary minus operator on the table.
This metamethod can be a function that returns the value the tostring function should return when it is called with the table as its argument.
add(self, value)
sub(self, value)
mul(self, value)
div(self, value)
mod(self, value)
pow(self, value)
These metamethods can be used to tell the virtual machine what to do respectively when a value is added to, subtracted from, multiplied to or divided by the table. The last two are similar, but are respectively for the modulus operator (%) and the exponentiation operator (^).
eq(self, value)
This metamethod is used by the equality operator (==). It will only be used if the two values compared have the same metatable. The non-equality operator (~=) uses the opposite of the result of this function.
lt(self, value)
le(self, value)
These metamethods are used by the "less than" and "less than or equal to" operators. The "greater than" and "greater than or equal to" operators will return the opposite of what these metamethods return. They will only be used if the values have the same metatable.
This metamethod is called by Lua before the garbage collector collects a value a metatable with this metamethod is attached to. It only works with userdata values, and cannot be used with tables.
This metamethod is called by Lua when the length operator (#) is used on a userdata value. It cannot be used with tables.
If this metamethod is present (it can be anything), using getmetatable on the table will return this metamethod's value instead of the metatable, and changing the table's metatable with the setmetatable function will not be allowed.
This metamethod should be a string that can contain the letter "k" or "v" (or both). If the letter "k" is present, the table's keys will be weak. If the letter "v" is present, the table's values will be weak. What this means will be explained later, along with garbage collection.

Metatables, although normal Lua programs can only use them with tables, are in fact the mechanism at the core of the way Lua handles operators and operations, and they can in fact theoretically be used with any value. However, Lua only allows them to be used with tables and userdata values created with the undocumented newproxy function. Using Lua's C API or the debug library, it is possible to set the metatable of values of other types like numbers and strings.

It is sometimes desirable to perform an operation on a table without invoking metamethods. This is possible for indexing, adding fields in a table, checking for equality and obtaining the length of a table using the rawget, rawset, rawequal and rawlen functions, respectively. The first returns the value corresponding to the index given to it as its second argument in the table given to it in the first argument. The second sets to the value given in its third argument the value corresponding to the index given in the second argument in the table given in the first argument. The third returns whether the two values given to it are equal. Finally, the fourth returns the length (an integer) of the object it is given, which must be a table or a string.


An iterator is a function that is used conjunctly with a foreach loop. In most cases, an iterator is used to loop over or traverse a data-structure. Examples of this are the iterators returned by the pairs and ipairs functions which are used, respectively, to traverse the elements of a table or of an array. The pairs function, for example, returns the next function, along with the table it is given as an argument, which explains the equivalence in pairs(dictionary) with in next, dictionary, since the former actually evaluates to the latter.

There is no requirement for iterators to always work with data structures, as iterators can be designed for any case where looping is required. For example, the file:lines function returns an iterator which returns a line from a file at each iteration. Similarly, the string.gmatch function returns an iterator which returns a match of a pattern in a string at each iteration. This code, for example, would print all the lines in a file called "file.txt".

for line in"file.txt"):lines() do

Creating iteratorsEdit

An iterator consists of three things:

  • A transformation function
  • A state value
  • One or many loop variables

The transformation function is used to modify the values of the loop variables (the variables that appear between the for and the in) for each iteration of the loop. This function is invoked before every iteration and takes, as arguments, the value the loop variables were set to during the last iteration. The function is expected to return a tuple (one or many values) containing the new values for these variables. The loop variables will be set to the components of the returned tuple and the loop will go through an iteration. Once that iteration has completed (so long as it has not been interrupted by a break or return statement) the transformation function will be called again and will return another set of values, which the loop variables will be set to for the next iteration, and so on and so forth. This cycle of calling the transformation function and iterating over the statements of the loop will continue until the transformation function returns nil.

Along with the loop variables, the transformation function is also passed in a state value which will remain constant throughout the loop. The can be used, for example, to maintain a reference to the data structure, file handle or resource the transformation function is iterating over.

An example of a transformation function which will produce a sequence of numbers up to 10 is given below. This transformation function requires only one loop variable which will have it's value stored in value.

function seq(state, value)
	if (value >= 10) then
		return nil -- Returning nil will terminate the loop
		local new_value = value + 1 -- The next value to use within the loop is the current value of `value` plus 1.
		-- This value will be used as the value of `value` the next time this function is called.
		return new_value

The generic for loop expects a tuple containing the transformation function, the state value and the initial values of the loop variables. This tuple can be included directly after the in keyword.

-- This will display the numbers from 1 to 10.
for value in seq, nil, 0 do

In most cases, however, this tuple will be returned by a function. This allows for the use of iterator factories which, when called, returns a new iterator that can be used with a generic for loop:

function count_to_ten()
	local function seq(state, value)
		if (value >= 10) then
			return nil
			local new_value = value + 1
			return new_value
	return seq, nil, 0
for x in count_to_ten() do

Since Lua supports closures and functions as first-class objects, the iterator factory can also take arguments which can be used within the transformation function.

function count_to(limit)
	local function seq(state, value)
		if (value >= limit) then
			return nil
			local new_value = value + 1
			return new_value
	return seq, nil, 0
for value in count_to(10) do -- Print the numbers from 1 to 10
for value in count_to(20) do -- Print the numbers from 1 to 20
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Last modified on 8 February 2014, at 01:33