Lua Indexing of tables


Example

Perhaps the most important use of metatables is the possibility to change the indexing of tables. For this, there are two actions to consider: reading the content and writing the content of the table. Note that both actions are only triggered if the corresponding key is not present in the table.

Reading

local meta = {}

-- to change the reading action, we need to set the '__index' method
-- it gets called with the corresponding table and the used key
-- this means that table[key] translates into meta.__index(table, key)
meta.__index = function(object, index)
    -- print a warning and return a dummy object
    print(string.format("the key '%s' is not present in object '%s'", index, object))
    return -1
end

-- create a testobject
local t = {}

-- set the metatable
setmetatable(t, meta)

print(t["foo"]) -- read a non-existent key, prints the message and returns -1

This could be used to raising an error while reading a non-existent key:

-- raise an error upon reading a non-existent key
meta.__index = function(object, index)
    error(string.format("the key '%s' is not present in object '%s'", index, object))
end

Writing

local meta = {}

-- to change the writing action, we need to set the '__newindex' method
-- it gets called with the corresponding table, the used key and the value
-- this means that table[key] = value translates into meta.__newindex(table, key, value)
meta.__newindex = function(object, index, value)
    print(string.format("writing the value '%s' to the object '%s' at the key '%s'",
                         value, object, index))
    --object[index] = value -- we can't do this, see below
end

-- create a testobject
local t = { }

-- set the metatable
setmetatable(t, meta)

-- write a key (this triggers the method)
t.foo = 42

You may now ask yourself how the actual value is written in the table. In this case, it isn't. The problem here is that metamethods can trigger metamethods, which would result in an infinitive loop, or more precisely, a stack overflow. So how can we solve this? The solution for this is called raw table access.