Extended undefined-variable checker for Lua 5.1 and 5.2
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Extended undefined-variable checker for Lua 5.1 and 5.2

There are various approaches to detecting undeclared variables in Lua. lglob extends the approach used in David Manura's globalsplus.lua, which in turn is an extension of globals.lua in the Lua distribution.

The idea is to examine the disassembly listing of the code using luac and track global usage, both setting and getting, and check against a whitelist. David's approach is to also look at fields of known globals, so that we can mark table.Concat and math.sine as errors.

lglob extends this further to detect writes to known tables, to support Lua 5.2, and to provide optional local alias analysis. For help, just type lglob; it understands wilcards on Windows (where the shell doesn't do globbing).

Apart from David's script, this utility was strongly inspired by Egil Hjelmeland's globals utility, which I found extremely useful in cleaning up Penlight after the move away from module.

Kein-Hong Man's No Frills Introduction to the Lua VM has been indispensible for decoding the subtleties of some Lua VM instructions.


Even a straightforward Lua script is easy to get wrong. But spelling mistakes will happen and they are not compile errors.

-- args.lua
for i,a in pairs(args) do

Naturally this becomes a massive irritation with larger, multi-file programs. People consider this to be the 'price' of using dynamic languages, which is not really true since many errors can be caught effectively with static bytecode analysis.

$ lglob args.lua
lglob: args.lua:2: undefined get args

lglob works with a whitelist of known globals, by default the usual global environment. It is an effective spellchecker because if a variable is not declared as a local, it is assumed to be global.

Non-trivial programs often include external libraries, and we would like to track them as well. By default lglob tries to load any required modules. Consider this:

-- use-lfs.lua
require 'lfs'

local function getdir ()
    return lfs.currentdir()


$ lglob use-lfs.lula
lglob: use-lfs.lua:9: undefined get lfs.changedir

This is the output if we leave out the local in front of the function:

lglob: use-lfs.lua:4: undefined set getdir
lglob: use-lfs.lua:8: undefined get getdir
lglob: use-lfs.lua:9: undefined get lfs.changedir

lglob by default is strict about the use of globals - it sees both a set and a get of an unknown global. The -g flag makes it accept globals which have been set in the file; the flag -t for tolerant is an alias. Usually you should strive to use local compulsively if you want to write Lua that scales beyond a dozen-line script, so this easy-going approach is not the default!

lglob is strict about redefining globals:

-- monkey-patch.lua
function table.concat(t) return t end

next = 2


$ lglob monkey-patch.lua
lglob: monkey-patch.lua:2: redefining global table.concat
lglob: monkey-patch.lua:4: redefining global next
lglob: monkey-patch.lua:6: undefined get table.next

It often feels convenient to 'monkey-patch' existing functions (and it appears that the Ruby community have given into the temptation wholesale) but (again) if you want to write code that others can understand and which plays nicely with others' code then you do not want to monkey-patch. In particular, modules which are meant to be generally useful should not indulge in monkey business.

Explicit Whitelisting

LuaJava programs have a new global library luajava defined. For this snippet to pass, we need to give lglob an extra whitelist entry:

-- lj.lua
print(luajava.bindClass "java.lang.System")

-- luajava.wlist -- whitelist for using luajava
luajava = {

$ lglob -w luajava.wlist lj.lua

The whitelist may contain any number of these definitions, in plain Lua style (functions may be defined on the top level as well)

If the special file global.whitelist exists in the same directory as lglob invocation, then this is pulled in with an implicit -w.

When dealing with a custom Lua environment, not all of the usual globals may be available. There are two ways to handle this. The -wx flag works in a similar way to -w, but provides an exclusive whitelist that overrides the existing one. Or you can define a blacklist in the same format and use -b to remove entries from the default whitelist.

-- restricted.wlist
debug = true
setmetatable = true
setfenv = true

It isn't always possible or desirable to load required modules using require. The whitelist loaded by -wl is only used to resolve modules. So if we had two modules 'boo' and 'bar, then:

-- boobar.wlist
boo = {
    open = true,
    close = true
foo = {
    print = true,
    query = true

-- useboobar.lua
require 'boo'  -- either way works --
local foo = require 'foo'

local b = boo.open 'mine'

$ lglob -wl boobar.wlist

If any 'module whitelists' are supplied, then lglob will not try to resolve modules by calling require directly. If you don't wish to track requires, then -wl nil will define an empty whitelist.

Local Aliases

There has been a movement away from (ab)using the global namespace in Lua. A more modern version of the lfs example would be:

-- use-lfs-strictly.lua
local lfs = require 'lfs'

local function getdir ()
    return lfs.currentdir()


$ lglob -x use-lfs-strictly.lua
lglob: use-lfs-strictly.lua:9: undefined get lfs.changedir

No globals are used, except for the built-in require and print functions. This style will also work fine with both Lua 5.1 and 5.2.

In this case lglob will track lfs as an alias for the module; if you called it L it would work as well.


Lua 5.1 introduced a module system based on function environments.

--- old-fashioned Lua 5.1 module

function show ()

function answer ()
    return 42

The module call sets the function environment of the module (which is just a function) to a module table and creates a global 'glob' set to this table; require will also return the table. Any 'global' references are thereafter to the module table. package.seeall injects global references into the module by giving it a metatable index pointing to _G.

lglob tracks the module call and sets the -g flag, so that the module functions or fields become known references.

package.seeall has got a bad press. In particular, it is a distinct no-no for any sandboxed application, since the module can be used to refer to the original global namespace which contains problematic tables like io and os which the sandboxer would rather not expose. Also, it is rather inefficient since any global reference is now indirect.

However, module is not intrinsically evil. It remains very convenient, and without package.seeall becomes less problematic.

--- Better Lua 5.1 module, with a problem

function show ()

function answer ()
    return 42

$ lglob better.lua
lglob: better.lua:5: undefined get print

We see that print is not visible after module(), because it isn't inside the module environment. lglob's -gd (for 'global definitions') helps here; it prints out the local definitions you need to insert at the top of your module:

$ lglob -gd better.lua
local print = print

Applying to args.lua above gives:

$ lglob -gd args.lua
local pairs,print = pairs,print
local string = string

In this way, lglob helps with an irritating part of module creation; the payoff is worthwhile, since local access is faster than global access and generates less code.

This release also deals with the _ENV Lua 5.2 idiom which achieves the same result:

local print = print
function say(msg)
return _ENV
--> lglob: mod52.lua:4: undefined get tostring

Personally, the approach I use when writing modules is to keep things simple and avoid function environment magic - which is deprecated in Lua 5.2 anyway.

-- new.lua: plain-jane module style for 5.1/5.2 compatibility
-- tracks both require and module local aliases
local lfs = require 'lfs'
local new = {}


function new.one ()
    return new.two()

function new.two ()
    return 42*new.fiddle_factor

return new

$ lglob -x new.lua
lglob: new.lua:13: undefined get new.fiddle_factor

The local aliasing tracked by ldoc also applies to the current module (since even the supermen of code have bad days and can't spell their own functions)

By the way, it's still useful to use the output of -gd here, since it's useful documentation (readers can tell at a glance what libraries are used) and often leads to performance improvements.

If you are a really careful coder (verging on the paranoid) then lglob provides a portable way to indicate that the global namespace is not available. The special global _LGLOB has the same static effect as _ENV, although it has no run-time meaning and just acts as a marker.

local print = print
local M = {}
function M.say(msg)
return M
--> lglob: mod5x.lua:5: undefined get tostring

Obviously lglob cannot deal with any dynamic modification of the environment, such as using setmetatable.

Generating Whitelists from Module Contents and requires

The -d flag dumps all exported contents of a module; the names are set to their linenumbers, which can be useful, and it is in the right format for whitelisting.

$ lglob -d old.lua
["old"] = {
    show = 4,
    answer = 8,
$ lglob -d new.lua
["new"] = {
    one = 8,
    two = 12,

The -dx flag applies to a full lglob invocation and captures all the 'exceptions', which you have deemed harmless:

~/lua/Penlight/lua$ lglob -dx . > global.whitelist
~/lua/Penlight/lua$ cat global.whitelist
_G["debug.upvaluejoin"] = true
_G["lapp.slack"] = true
_G["utils.pack"] = true

The tests directory has a full whitelist for the Penlight library, analysed with lglob -d -p pl *.lua; the -p flag ensures that the entries go into the correct package.

The pltest.lua file uses Penlight, but you don't need that library to be installed to check files that use it. Use the whitelist like so:

lglob -wl penlight.wlist pltest.lua

The -rd flag has a similar output but dumps all required modules. For instance, basic.wlist in the tests directory is made with lglob -rd req.lua > basic.wlist.

-- req.lua
require 'lfs'
require 'socket'
require 'socket.http'
require 'socket.ftp'
require 'socket.smtp'
require 'lpeg'

Further Work

No program is ever finished (except perhaps sed) and there are some improvements I have in mind for lglob.

A surprisingly tricky problem which is (partially) solved in this release is the common use of local aliases for globals in modules:

local T = table

print(T.concatenate {1,2,3})

Although not perfect, lglob will flag issues like this.

Some Lua 5.2 users already use _ENV to create local environments on a per-block basis, but lglob does not currently support this. If someone can convince me that this is more than a fad, I will be happy to try implement these extended patterns ;)

Local analysis remains experimental but has promise. For instance, it would be most useful to understand common class patterns and track instances of the special self local. Since these patterns are often per-project conventions, this would be an interesting challenge.