Lua Tables

René Article, Free 1 Comment

Lua tables are the most powerful structure in the Lua language. In fact almost everything in Lua is a table.

Other languages have structures for Arrays, for Classes, etc. In Lua we have tables. And we can adopt most characteristics of the afore mentioned structures with tables.

So let’s have a look on some common scenarios with Lua tables.


Lua tables can be used like arrays. Let’s create an empty table like so:

local myTable = {}

Always use local when declaring a new variable. Otherwise the variable is created as a global variable. But we should really try to avoid this.

We can also add some data fields on creation time:

local myTable = { 3, 8, 12, 255 }

This table does have four fields now. If you want to use this table like an array, you can address each field like this:

local a = myTable[1]		-- a = 3
local b = myTable[3]		-- b = 12

The same is possible with strings:

local myTable = {"I", "am", "learning", "tables"}
local a = myTable[2]		-- a = "am"
local b = myTable[4]		-- b = "tables"

As you can see Lua table fields are one-based – this means the first field is addressed with the index number 1 (not zero, like many other languages do).


Often you have to iterate over the array. For example let’s print the content of every field in your array.

Therefore we need a for-loop and we need the number of fields in the table.

Let’s take the last table from above that contains four strings. The length of a table (number of fields in a table) can be read with a # symbol like this:

local myTable = {"I", "am", "learning", "tables"}
local length = #myTable      -- length = 4

A for-loop is built like this:

for i=a,b do
  -- do soemthing here in the loop

a is the starting index of the table and b is the ending index of the table. i is the current index that gets incremented by one on each iteration. So here is a complete iteration example:

local myTable = {"I", "am", "learning", "tables"}
local length = #myTable

for i=1,length do
 	print( myTable[i] ) 	-- see how we use i to read the value

The output in the console should look like this:


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Associated Arrays

Associated arrays do use keys being associated to a value. In most cases the key would be a string like this:

local myTable = {}
myTable["color1"] = "FF0000"   -- the key here is "color1", the associated value is "FF0000"
myTable["color2"] = "33FD21"   -- the key here is "color2", the associated value is "33FD21"

There are three ways to get the value of such an associated „array“:

print( myTable["color1"] )
print( myTable[1] )
print( myTable.color1 )

The above code would always print FF0000 to the console. They do all address the same field in the table.

The last example with the dot notation is a very convenient way. But it does only work with string associated arrays.

You can also use dot notation to create a key/value association. The corresponding string association will be created automatically like the following example proves:

local myTable = {} = "Peter Parker"

Now you can use one of the following lines of code to read that field:

print( )
print( myTable["name"] )

But the following code would not work:

print( myTable[name] )

-- this would insert the variable called name as a key value. But at this point there is no variable called name declared. So this should work:

local name = "name"
print( myTable[name] )

Insert Into Table

If you want to insert a new value into an existing table you can use:

table.insert( t, value )

t is the table to insert the new value into. Example:

local myTable = {"I","am","learning"}
table.insert( myTable, "Lua" )

This would insert the string “Lua” at the end of the table.

You can also add an optional index, to insert the new value at a certain position in the table:

local myTable = {"I","am","learning"}
table.insert( myTable, 2, "Lua" )

This would create a table that looks like this:


Remove from Table

Like inserting new values you can also remove values from tables:

table.remove( t, index )

t is the table to remove the value from. index is the position in the table. Here is an example:

local myTable = {"I","Lua", "am","learning"}
table.remove( myTable, 2 )

This would remove the “Lua” value from the table which has been at the index position 2.

Functions in Tables

Tables can not only store values like strings and numbers. It can store other tables and even functions. Let’s have a look:

local myTable = {}
myTable[1] = "Peter Parker"
myTable[2] = function()
	print( myTable[1] )
myTable[2]()		-- use the brackets here because it is a function

The above example would write Peter Parker to the console. But especially the last line does look somewhat ugly. Let’s use the dot notation and everything looks better:

local myTable = {} = "Peter Parker"
myTable.PrintName = function()
	print( )
myTable.PrintName()    -- use the brackets here because it is a function

As you can see, we can also store functions in tables. Maybe now you can imagine, that a table can get a very powerful and complex structure.

OOP and Arrays in Lua?

Now I’m going on thin ice: the above code reminds me on object orientation (OOP) with properties and methods …

Why thin ice?

Everytime you mention OOP in the Lua community you always get answers like: OOP in Lua is not possible!!! And they are right.

But there are some principles of OOP we can adopt with Lua. But more in this in a different article.

We also should say Array-like structures, because in Lua there are no arrays – only tables.

As always: the truth lies somewhere in between (when using Lua).

As always: the truth lies somewhere in between (when using Lua).


I hope I could shed some light on tables in Lua for you. I will write more about tables when it comes to writing your own modules.

See you
– René

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