Either it was a way to steal out of the office for a morning or the federal bureaucracy takes Jimmy Carter's war on gobbledygook very seriously.

Whatever, some 800 federal employees put down their pencils, shut their attache cases and turned out yesterday for a seminar devoted to writing regulations in plain English.

Those who remember the 1976 presidential campaign and President Carter's first fireside chat in February will recall that he promised to banish confusing language from government regulations.

Nobody said it would happen overnight - and it didn't - but things are happening in the warrens of the bureaucracy. At least they're talking about the problem and going to seminars.

Yesterday's seminar, organized by the National Center for Administrative Justice, is an example. Enrollment mushroomed so quickly that it was rescheduled into larger rooms to hold the crowd.

"It is astounding," said Milton Carrow, director of the center, as he looked out over the hundreds of regulation writers in the Shoreham Americana ballroom.

"We had our first class in April, 1975-and it drew about 25 people . . . Today is an example of the clout the President has in the agencies. This idea of writing plainer English is going through all the agencies," he said.

There once was a time, say when the first regulations were written for steamboat safety in the 1800s, that plain English for the masses wasn't that important.

But as life became more complicated and Congress passed more laws to protect us from ourselves, federal regulations were written with great foggy abandon.

The result is a Code of Federal Regulations that occupies 15 feet of shelf space. Most of it is written in language that overstates, frustrates and obfuscates.

That's what the plain-English seminar was all about. The idea is that unless something is done - and soon - the bigger the understanding gap will brow.

One of the panelists, James Minor, a former federal regulatory official from Florida, put it in focus:

"For the first time in history, regulations are beginning to hit us as individuals . . . There are 10 times more regulatory programs now than there were in 1950 and they are increasing on a sharp curve.

"I am not joking then I say Congress has to have something to do. Wait until you see the regulations coming from the energy legislation. They will affect us all and we will have to live more measured lives. We are going to be regulated right down to our teeth one of these days."

Minor's message was that the people who write the rules must understand what is intended and what can be accomplished through regulations.And then, he said, they must learn to write more simply, more clearly.

Another panelist, Alan Siegal, a New York consulant who sells his language-simplification services to business and government, put it another way!

"Think out the substance before writing the regulation . . . What's needed is a strong general statement, which allows people to use their own sense in following the basic intent of the regulation. Too much detail is self-deating. Once you start trying to answer every question, you soon get caught in a thickest of fine print."