It will probably be popular with the public, but President Carter's war on federal regulations is confusing and dismaying the civil servants who ghostwrite them, the middle managers who sign them, and the Cabinet officers who are supposed to read them.

"Of course we're going to do what the President says," said John Snow, head of the National Highway Safety Administration, an agency that produces large quantities of the arcane regulations that have incurred Carter's ire."But if he's serious, he'll bring the federal government to a grinding halt."

"Of course, if the President says do it, we'll do it," agreed Snow's boss, Transportation Secretary Brock Adams. "Except my first impression is that it's impossible to do."

The "impossible" task Carter has set for his Cabinet is to do something about the tidal wave of orders, rules, notices, and regulations that flows forth from the executive agencies every working day.

Carter complained during his election campaign about "excessively burdensome government regulations," and in his fireside chat last week the President proposed a four-fold solution to the problem.

The number and bulk of regulations would be cut, he promised. They would be written "in plain English, for a change." Each would be signed by its actual author. And each regulation would be read personally by a Cabinet officer before it was issued.

Although veteran regulation writers are dubious about all those objectives, it is fourth requirement that has Snow, Adams, and other federal officials incredulous.

The problem is sheer volume.

If Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr., for example, were to read every word of his agency's daily flood of regulations, he would be reading the equivalent of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" once or twice each week.

Carter's assignment for his Cabinet parallels a campaign promise he made when he ran for the Georgia state senate in 1962 - that he would read every bill before voting on it.

Carter later described that pledge as "unfortunate." In his autobiography he observed that "it was a time-consuming chore, but I took a rapid-reading course and indeed became an expert on many unimportant subjects."

Despite that experience, Carter announced at his Cabinet meeting Monday that he was serious about the reading requirement. The job was not to be delegated, he said, no matter how time-consuming it may be.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris responded by ordering a complete set of her agency's existing regulations.

"I thought I should know the old regs before I start reviewing the new ones," Harris said. "I can probably get through the set, if I stay awake, in two or three days."

Other Cabinet members have apparently concluded that simply reading new regulations will be trouble enough.

The Federal Aviation Administration, part of Brock Adams' multi-faceted domain, recently issued 680 single-spaced pages of airspace regulations.

Adams said this week that he "didn't get around to reading that one yet." He added that "the things are piling up on me already. It's enormous - I'm not certain that it's physically possible."

Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, who would be reading Internal Revenue Service rulings and regulations by the hundreds under the President's directive, has asked for a staff memorandum on what he should do, an aide said.

A spokesman for Califano, whose agency is the government's most prolific regulation producer, said the new secretary had not yet decided how to deal with the reading requirement.

Carter's suggestion that those who actually write the regulations should sign them has prompted an equally glum reaction in the agencies.

"I don't want to be difficult," said Snow, "but you take that regulation we put out the other day on anthropomorphic test dummies. There must have been 20 or 30 lawyers and engineers who worked on it. Does he want all of them to sign it?"

Officials at the Office of the Federal Register, who publish all government pronouncements in a daily compilation, say Carter will probably have difficulty as well in cutting the number of regulations issued.

"When I came here in the Truman administration," said Ernest Galdi, deputy director of the Federal Register, "we were printing 15,000 pages a year. Now it's 60,000, and most of that growth is because of requirements set by statute."

Recent readers of the Federal Register could have learned that the per- "dehorned cattle" is one inch; that new anchorages have been established in Keehl Lagoon, Hawaii; that hunters may not use crossbows in Pungo National Wildlife Refuge, and that "the EPA . . . identifies pavement breakers and rock drills as major sources of noise."

All this information was printed in accordance with congressional requirements, which the President alone presumably cannot eliminate.

The one area in which agency personnel feel Carter may succeed is his effort to have the regulations written in "plain English."

"We've been working on that for some time, giving classes and circulating model regulations," says Fred Emery, a youthful, bearded lawyer who heads the Federal Register.

"Now that the President is interested, we're getting a very strong response. We're going to make good progress on it."

But that effort faces problems, too, because a good part of each agency's regulations is written to satisfy legal requirements rather than literary critics.

Rudolf Flesch, author of textbooks on plain speaking and clear writing, says that the regulations are issued as "prefabricated parts of quarrels . . . so that someday, somewhere some government official can say: 'Yes, but it says in the Federal Register.'"

That was illustrated in a government order printed in the register on Feb. 4. A detailed discussion of tax withholding in federal agencies, the order ended with a 94-word sentence: add eight-regulation-n

"However, all actions heretofore taken by the President or his delegates in respect of the matters affected by this Order and in force at the time of the issuance of this Order, including any regulations prescribed or approved . . .," the sentence began. It ran on through five more legalistic clauses.

Just after that sentence appeared the signature of the government employee who issued it: Jimmy Carter.