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.