Lua Primer

While you’re learning, it’s a good idea to keep the Lua reference manual open in a tab to refer to; it is indispensable. However, if you want the short version, here are the most important parts of Lua you’ll need to get started. This is meant to give a very brief overview and let you know where in the manual to look for further details, not to teach Lua.

Note that this is a complete list of all globals in standard Lua, though it doesn’t explain all the functions inside every top-level module. Other Lua runtimes or embedded contexts usually introduce things that aren’t covered here.

Important functions

Note that tostring on tables will give unsatisfactory results; simply evaluating the table in the REPL will invoke fennelview for you and show a human-readable view of the table (or you can invoke fennelview explicitly in your code).

The io module

This module contains functions for operating on the filesystem. Note that directory listing is absent; you need the luafilesystem library for that.

To open a file you use, which returns a file descriptor upon success, or nil and a message upon failure. This failure behavior makes it well-suited for wrapping with assert to turn failure into an error. You can call methods on the file descriptor, concluding with f:close.

(let [f (assert ( "path/to/file"))]
  (print (f:read)) ; reads a single line by default
  (print (f:read "*a")) ; you can read the whole file

You can also call with :w as its second argument to open the file in write mode and then call f:write and f:flush on the file descriptor.

The other important function in this module is the io.lines function, which returns an iterator over all the file’s lines.

(each [line (io.lines "path/to/file")]
  (process-line line))

It will automatically close the file once it detects the end of the file. You can also call f:lines on a file descriptor that you got using

The table module

This contains some basic table manipulation functions. All these functions operate on sequential tables, not general key/value tables. The most important ones are described below:

The table.insert function takes a table, an optional position, and an element, and it will insert the element into the table at that position. The position defaults to being the end of the table. Similarly table.remove takes a table and an optional position, removes the element at that position, and returns it. The position defaults to the last element in the table. To remove something from a non-sequential table, simply set its key to nil.

The table.concat function returns a string that has all the elements concatenated together with an optional separator.

(let [t [1 2 3]]
  (table.insert t 2 "a") ; t is now [1 "a" 2 3]
  (table.insert t "last") ; now [1 "a" 2 3 "last"]
  (print (table.remove t)) ; prints "last"
  (table.remove t 1) ; t is now ["a" 2 3]
  (print (table.concat t ", "))) prints "a, 2, 3"

The table.sort function a table in-place, as a side-effect. It takes an optional comparator function which should return true when its first argument is less than the second.

The table.unpack function returns all the elements in the table as multiple values. Note that table.unpack is just unpack in Lua 5.1.

Other important modules

You can explore a module by evaluating it in the REPL to display all the functions and values it contains.

Note that Lua does not implement regular expressions but its own more limited pattern language for string.find, string.match, etc.


Lua loading

These are used for loading Lua code. The load* functions return a “chunk” function which must be called before the code gets run, but dofile executes immediately.


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