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We investigate the effect of defects in the metal-coating layer of a scanning near-field optical microscopy (SNOM) probe on the coupling of polarization modes using rigorous electromagnetic modeling tools. Because of practical limitations, we study an ensemble of simple defects to identify important trends and then extrapolate these results to more realistic structures. We find that a probe with many random defects will produce a small but significant coupling of energy between a linearly polarized input mode and a radial/longitudinal polarization mode, which is known to produce a strongly localized emitted optical field and is desirable for SNOM applications. © 2006 Optical Society of America.