Subduction of oceanic lithosphere occurs through two modes: subducting plate motion and trench migration. Using a global subduction zone data set and three-dimensional numerical subduction models, we show that slab width (W) controls these modes and the partitioning of subduction between them. Subducting plate velocity scales with W2/3, whereas trench velocity scales with 1/W. These findings explain the Cenozoic slowdown of the Farallon plate and the decrease in subduction partitioning by its decreasing slab width. The change from Sevier-Laramide orogenesis to Basin and Range extension in North America is also explained by slab width; shortening occurred during wide-slab subduction and overriding-plate-driven trench retreat, whereas extension occurred during intermediate to narrow-slab subduction and slab-driven trench retreat.