Lua: Types and Values (Variables)

6 Jul 2016
Karthik Padmanabhan

Lua is a dynamically typed language. There are no type definitions in the language; each value carries its own type.

There are eight basic types in Lua: nil, boolean, number, string, userdata, function, thread, and table. The type function gives the type name of a given value:

	print(type("Hello world"))  --> string
	print(type(10.4*3))         --> number
	print(type(print))          --> function
	print(type(type))           --> function
	print(type(true))           --> boolean
	print(type(nil))            --> nil
	print(type(type(X)))        --> string

The last example will result in “string” no matter the value of X, because the result of type is always a string.
Variables have no predefined types; any variable may contain values of any type:

    print(type(a))   --> nil   (`a' is not initialized)
    a = 10
    print(type(a))   --> number
    a = "a string!!"
    print(type(a))   --> string
    a = print        -- yes, this is valid!
    a(type(a))       --> function

Notice the last two lines: Functions are first-class values in Lua; so, we can manipulate them like any other value.
Usually, when you use a single variable for different types, the result is messy code. However, sometimes the judicious use of this facility is helpful, for instance in the use of nil to differentiate a normal return value from an exceptional condition.


Nil is a type with a single value, nil, whose main property is to be different from any other value. As we have seen, a global variable has a nil value by default, before a first assignment, and you can assign nil to a global variable to delete it. Lua uses nil as a kind of non-value, to represent the absence of a useful value.


The boolean type has two values, false and true, which represent the traditional boolean values. However, they do not hold a monopoly of condition values: In Lua, any value may represent a condition. Conditionals (such as the ones in control structures) consider false and nil as false and anything else as true. Beware that, unlike some other scripting languages, Lua considers both zero and the empty string as true in conditional tests.


The number type represents real (double-precision floating-point) numbers. Lua has no integer type, as it does not need it. There is a widespread misconception about floating-point arithmetic errors and some people fear that even a simple increment can go weird with floating-point numbers. The fact is that, when you use a double to represent an integer, there is no rounding error at all (unless the number is greater than 100,000,000,000,000). Specifically, a Lua number can represent any long integer without rounding problems. Moreover, most modern CPUs do floating-point arithmetic as fast as (or even faster than) integer arithmetic.

It is easy to compile Lua so that it uses another type for numbers, such as longs or single-precision floats. This is particularly useful for platforms without hardware support for floating point. See the distribution for detailed instructions.

We can write numeric constants with an optional decimal part, plus an optional decimal exponent.


Strings have the usual meaning: a sequence of characters. Lua is eight-bit clean and so strings may contain characters with any numeric value, including embedded zeros. That means that you can store any binary data into a string. Strings in Lua are immutable values. You cannot change a character inside a string, as you may in C; instead, you create a new string with the desired modifications.


The table type implements associative arrays. An associative array is an array that can be indexed not only with numbers, but also with strings or any other value of the language, except nil. Moreover, tables have no fixed size; you can add as many elements as you want to a table dynamically. Tables are the main (in fact, the only) data structuring mechanism in Lua, and a powerful one. We use tables to represent ordinary arrays, symbol tables, sets, records, queues, and other data structures, in a simple, uniform, and efficient way. Lua uses tables to represent packages as well. When we write, we mean “the read entry from the io package”. For Lua, that means “index the table io using the string “read” as the key”.

Tables in Lua are neither values nor variables; they are objects. If you are familiar with arrays in Java or Scheme, then you have a fair idea of what we mean. However, if your idea of an array comes from C or Pascal, you have to open your mind a bit. You may think of a table as a dynamically allocated object; your program only manipulates references (or pointers) to them. There are no hidden copies or creation of new tables behind the scenes. Moreover, you do not have to declare a table in Lua; in fact, there is no way to declare one. You create tables by means of a constructor expression, which in its simplest form is written as {}.


Functions are first-class values in Lua. That means that functions can be stored in variables, passed as arguments to other functions, and returned as results. Such facilities give great flexibility to the language: A program may redefine a function to add new functionality, or simply erase a function to create a secure environment when running a piece of untrusted code (such as code received through a network). Moreover, Lua offers good support for functional programming, including nested functions with proper lexical scoping; just wait. Finally, first-class functions play a key role in Lua’s object-oriented facilities.

Lua can call functions written in Lua and functions written in C. All the standard library in Lua is written in C. It comprises functions for string manipulation, table manipulation, I/O, access to basic operating system facilities, mathematical functions, and debugging. Application programs may define other functions in C.

Userdata and Threads

The userdata type allows arbitrary C data to be stored in Lua variables. It has no predefined operations in Lua, except assignment and equality test. Userdata are used to represent new types created by an application program or a library written in C; for instance, the standard I/O library uses them to represent files. We will discuss more about userdata later, when we get to the C API.

Example programs

--Re-using variables
print("Value of a: ",a)
print("Value of a: ",a)
print("Value of a: ",a)
print("Value of a: ",a)

print("Any variable in Lua can be of any data type.")

--Using literals
page= [[An HTML Page


--Tables in lua
--Creating tables

a = {}
k = "x"
a[k] = 10
a[20] = "great"
k = 20
a["x"] = a["x"] + 1

--Refer tables

a = {}
a["x"] = 10
b = a
b["x"] = 20
a = nil
--b = nil

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