This first edition was written for Lua 5.0. While still largely relevant for later versions, there are some differences.
The third edition targets Lua 5.2 and is available at Amazon and other bookstores.
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7.3 – Stateless Iterators

As the name implies, a stateless iterator is an iterator that does not keep any state by itself. Therefore, we may use the same stateless iterator in multiple loops, avoiding the cost of creating new closures.

On each iteration, the for loop calls its iterator function with two arguments: the invariant state and the control variable. A stateless iterator generates the next element for the iteration using only these two arguments. A typical example of this kind of iterator is ipairs, which iterates over all elements in an array, as illustrated next:

    a = {"one", "two", "three"}
    for i, v in ipairs(a) do
      print(i, v)
The state of the iteration is the table being traversed (the invariant state, which does not change during the loop), plus the current index (the control variable). Both ipairs and the iterator it returns are quite simple; we could write them in Lua as follows:
    function iter (a, i)
      i = i + 1
      local v = a[i]
      if v then
        return i, v
    function ipairs (a)
      return iter, a, 0
When Lua calls ipairs(a) in a for loop, it gets three values: the iter function as the iterator, a as the invariant state, and zero as the initial value for the control variable. Then, Lua calls iter(a, 0), which results in 1, a[1] (unless a[1] is already nil). In the second iteration, it calls iter(a, 1), which results in 2, a[2], and so on, until the first nil element.

The pairs function, which iterates over all elements in a table, is similar, except that the iterator function is the next function, which is a primitive function in Lua:

    function pairs (t)
      return next, t, nil
The call next(t, k), where k is a key of the table t, returns a next key in the table, in an arbitrary order. (It returns also the value associated with that key, as a second return value.) The call next(t, nil) returns a first pair. When there are no more pairs, next returns nil.

Some people prefer to use next directly, without calling pairs:

    for k, v in next, t do
Remember that the expression list of the for loop is adjusted to three results, so Lua gets next, t, and nil, exactly what it gets when it calls pairs(t).